The ‘Selfish’ Gene


‘The idea of genes in conflict with each other, the notion of the genome as a sort of battlefield between parental genes and childhood genes, or between male genes and female genes, is a little-known story outside a small group of evolutionary biologists. Yet is has profoundly shaken the philosophical foundations of biology.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes…. We and all other animals are machines created by our genes…if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals co-ooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish…Our conscious foresight – our capacity to stimulate the future in imagination – could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth.’ Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976, 1989, 2006

‘The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs. It creates the state of consciousness and the sense of self…To choose a spouse,a job, a religious creed - or even to choose to rob a bank - is the peak of a causal chain that runs back to the origin of life and down to the nature of atoms and molecules…’ Colin Blakemore, The Mind Machine, BBC, 1988

‘Hobbes clearly proves that ev’ry Creature/ Lives in a State of War by Nature…’ Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745, On Poetry

‘The subjective feeling of ‘somebody in there’ may be a cobbled, emergent, semi-illusion analogous to the individual body emerging in evolution from the uneasy co-operation of genes…The individual organism… is not fundamental to life, but something that emerges when genes, which at the beginning of evolution were separate, warring entities, gang together in co-operative groups as ‘selfish co-operators’. The individual organism is not exactly an illusion. It is too concrete for that. But is is a secondary, derived phenomoneon, cobbled together as a consequence of the action of fundamentally sepaeate, even warring agents.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘The evolution of society fits the Darwinian paradigm in its most individualist form. The economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end…No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for co-operation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation….given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain him from brutalising, from maiming, from murdering – his brother, his mate, his parent or his child. Scratch an ‘altruist’: and watch a hypocrite bleed.’ MT Ghiselin, The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex, 1974

‘Much of animal nature is ineed altruistic, cooperative and even attended by benevolent subjective emotion, but this follows from, rather than contradicts selfishness at the genetic level… [genes] are highly cooperative…but it is an anarchistic, ‘each gene for itself’ kind of co-operation.’ Richard Dawkins, Penguin, Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998

‘There had come the realisation that the genome wasn’t the monolithic data bank plus executive team devoted to one project – keeping oneself alive, having babies – that I had hitherto imgagined it to be. Instead, it was beginning to seem more like a company boardroom, a theatre for a power struggle of egoists and factions… My own consciousness and seemingly individible self was turning out far from what I had imagined and I need not be so ashamed of my self pity! I was an ambassador ordered abroad by some fragile coalition, a bearer of conficting orders from the uneasy masters of a divided empire… As I write these words, even so as to be able to write them, I am pretending to a unity that, deep inside myself, I now know does not exist. I am fundamentally mixed, male with female, parent with offspring, warring segments of chromosomes that interlocked in strife millions of years before the River Severn ever saw the Celts and Saxons of Housman’s poem [A Shropshire Lad].’ Bill Hamilton, ref

Selfish Gene

So I am not even captain among my genes,

who answer to no command but survival -

the ruthless demands of cut-throat Nature.

I am an accident, chance happening; bunch

of warring brigands - muggers, murderers -

shacked up together for the mutual benefits

of gang warfare, strength in bullying numbers.

I am not me - but we, being a pathetic illusion

held together by idiocy - naivety, sentiment -

all fine thoughts are but comforts of the mind,

salve, hallucinogen, so that I – as foul group -

might care not to die - and take them with me.


How clever this heart which only pumps

that blood might flow, stomach gurgle -

hands with adapted white star skeletons

should pick and pass food from bones -

has no aim but mate attraction - procreation.

Romance, love are but illusion; embroidered

screens to hide the purpose of those devilish genes -

emotion but a lovely cloak to serve their selfish ends.


Identity is but genetic glue; one of Nature’s tricksiest

tricks - it is not me I want to save, but just this bundle

that I am - these plotting molecules - scheming genes,

as hard and unconnected as the glinting stars,

unfeeling as the force of magnetism - gravity

of planets; ravenous dog on last stinking meat.

They hunt together as a ruthless pack called me;

but I do not control their teeth - and they would

devour each other for the slightest gain, stopped

only by the fact such a maiming would be the end

of them as well – a cold war for the human entity -

this seething rubbish sack of stinking, selfish genes.

So Evolution is not a grand scheme of things

So Evolution is not a grand scheme of things -

celebration of life, artistic principle of diversity;

spectacular creative chain and web combined -

that weaves all living beings in its single word,

but triumph of survival above all other things;

blind, ruthless competition with no scruples -

ambition beyond continuance, replication,

multiplication, each gene for itself; unless

it gains from another selfish gene. Biological

entities that never share their toys, all bundled

into volatile skin; a loose confederation I call me,

incapable of being altruistic – caring - genuinely

moved unless these scheming genes will benefit;

my love - laying down my own life for my child,

all mere strategies so the genes might have a future

home. My, how they’ve fooled me - a dark miracle,

shimmering disguise of familiar skin - just mask

over this rotten crock of bones; a crude imposter.


‘What accounts for this choice of words? Why did anybody ever pick on so odd a word as selfish as a technical term when something like selectable would have been so much more appropriate? And why did the public respond so eagerly, making these books best-sellers? It is surely clear that the reason for all this had nothing to do with science. It lay in a fresh outcropping of the strong, egoistic, individualistic strain in our political and moral thinking which dates from Hobbes and Locke. That strain became associated with evolution in Darwin’s day through Herbert Spencer and the social Darwinists in a romantic glorification of capitialist enterprise entirely typical of that epoch.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘What brings DNA to life, what gives it meaning is the cellular environment in which it is embedded…Genetic theorists with litte biochemical understanding have been profoundly misled by the metaphors that Crick provded in describing DNA (and RNA) as ‘self-replicating’ molecules or replicators, as if they could do it all by themselves. But they aren’t and they can’t… You may leave DNA or RNA for as long as you like in a test tube and they will remain inert; they certainly won’t make copies of themselves.’ Steven Rose, Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism, 1997

‘This will to emphasize improvement eventually resulted, in the fifth, 1869, editon, in his retitling the crucial fourth chapter, ‘Natural Selection’, as ‘Natural Selection; or the Survivial of the Fittest’…it proved to be an unfortunate move…that other signification of ‘fitness’ as ‘aptness’, also crucial to Darwin’s argument, is lost. So the way was cleared for some of the more venomous appropriations of his theories…’ Gillian Beer, Introduction to the Origin of Specie, 1859, Oxford University Press, 1988

‘I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another…’ Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859

‘What is the word ‘selfish’ doing here? Offcially, in these writings, it is supposed to be a harmless technical term referering to genes and meaning something like ‘selectable, able to be selected alone’. The authors, however, constantly oscilate between this technical meaning and the ordinary sense of the world – a sense which, with a word so common and emotive, cannot really be thrown off. Thus Richard Dawkins…quickly begins to describe this ‘selfishness’ of the genes as if it were a motive by qualifying it with words like ‘ruthless’ and shortly goes onto warn us that this motive – selfishness in the ordinary sense – actually belongs to ourselves… These writers do, of course, occasionally explain that their words must not be taken literally. But the disclaimers are brief and so completely without effect on their surroundings that they have no more force than the tiny warnings on cigarette packets...These writings continue to mix metaphor and literal science so inextricably that it is clear the authors themselves do not know how to distinguish them and it is not to be expected that their readers should do so.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

Let’s shoot ourselves in the foot,

eh.Yippee, let’s celebrate, darkly

venerate, our fundamental selfishness.

Not undesirable trait, but sole motive,

driving force, identifying mark;

stamp of the human condition -

that can never be overrode by love,

which is just illusion, unacceptable

weakness in this tale of Evolution -

written with selective evidence to fit

the worst interpretation of the story;

narrowest - most depressing vision.

Caution: Handle These Words with Care

Some words are so powerful - incendiary,

they should be marked with the universal

sign for cerebral explosives - mental skull

and crossbones: ‘Do Not Touch’; ‘Handle

with Care’;‘May cause damage if released

into the environment’ - ‘Danger: Toxic’ -

as radiation symbols signal slow toxicity,

seeping poison, crumbling scaffold bones.

Not least ‘Love’, veritable atom bomb,

able to bring down the whole world -

‘nationality’, ‘territory’, ‘war’, ‘country’,

should also come with a health warning,

dangerous as a smoking cache of arms.

And what of this little word - ‘selfish’,

which toddlers learn is not sharing toys;

how was it fertilised, used as metaphor,

personification - word probably hardly able

to believe its luck, becoming so powerful -

emblematic, singled out; carrying so much

theory in its seven letters - so much more

meaning that it had before; pride,

from such shameful beginnings –

probably gleeful, allowing itself to lounge,

luxuriate, stretch in becoming black swan

from such unpromising fledgling;

smiling that ruthless steely grin -

knowing men will have much better excuses,

for all their worst excess, base, horrible traits;

will love its potent terminology even more,

excused - able to blame, guilt free, with no

responsibility, choice, conscience;

these unreformed, ‘selfish’ genes,

knowing no better, made thus by Mother Nature;

who is therefore not bountiful in her green skirts,

garlands of flowers - looks something more like a wolf,

snarling at rocks, ripping open the sea until life crawled,

poor, loveless, heartless thing - capable of nothing

but blind survival; no aesthetic registering, stirring

such brutal heart - the whole as parts, ignorant of love;

howling competitively for the blood of other creatures.

‘The mythology that is offered today as a celebration of evolution by people like Wilson and Dawkins is one-sided because it is profoundly and arbitrarily individualistic. Its imagery of selfishness, spite, and grudging, investment, cheats, war games and the rest unmistakably reflects the naïve social atomism of the 1970s and 1980s. No doubt this dramatic language has been useful in bringing out certain aspects of evoution. No doubt it can still be used to investigate them further. But it really is important that people who use it should recongise its mythical character – should see that it is just one optional vision among others, a slanted, incomplete picture belonging to a particular epoch, a story which always needs others to correct it, not a final universal truth. The mythical quality which is often held to be an objection against the concept of Gaia is certainly no less present in the Selfish Gene.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

How bleak it is, ‘The Selfish Gene’ -

like a bad pop song, irritating advert,

it’s catchy, is designed to sell

a particular thing - in this case

a theory; selected from the evidence -

blinkered vision, dissecting the whole.

Life’s desire for survival mutated

beyond an element, yet excluding

the work of the learning heart,

sparkling chasm of the mind -

pixellated view, limiting and limited;

convenient excuse for bad behaviour.


‘…in reality genes act in dialogue with their surroundings… [this]is crucial to a true understanding.’ Ian Wilmut, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

‘The functioning cell, as a unit, constrains the properties of its individual components. The whole has primacy over its parts.’ Steven Rose, Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism, 1997

‘As for genes, it is not in fact seriously suggested that as a matter of historical fact, they ever existed as independent items, precursors and architects of the organisms that now embody them…DNA itself is a totally inert molecule which would never have done anything if it had been put down in a world without organisms. It is produced by living cells…it is no more capable of going around on its own than bones or leaves are.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘In the 1859 and 1860’s editions [of The Origin of Species] natural selection is represented as a benign, slow-acting, unconscious process that relies on the relations between organisms in terms of every kind of interaction (a “web of complex relations”) rather than competition alone.’ Gillian Beer, Introduction to the Origin of Species, 1859, Oxford University Press, 1988

‘Pleiotropy. Polygeny. Perhaps these terms will not easily become common parlance; but the critical point never to omit is that genes act in concert with one another - collectively with the environment. Again, all this has long been understood by biologists, when they break free of habitual careless words. We will not abandon the reductionist Mendelian programme for a hand-wringing holism: we cannot abandon the term gene and its allies. On the contrary, for ourselves, for the general public, what we require is to get more fully and precisely into the proper language of genetics.’ Horace Freeland Judson, Director, Center for History of Recent Science, George Washington University, Washington, US, Nature, 2001

‘Genes and gene products do not function independently, but participate in complex, interconnected pathways, networks and molecular systems that, taken together, give rise to the workings of cells, tissues, organs and organisms. Defining these systems and determining their properties and interactions is crucial to understanding how biological systems function. Yet these systems are far more complex than any problem that molecular biology, genetics or genomics has yet approached. On the basis of previous experience, one effective path will begin with the study of relatively simple model organisms, such as bacteria and yeast, and then extend the early findings to more complex organisms, such as mouse and human. Alternatively, focusing on a few well-characterized systems in mammals will be a useful test of the approach. Understanding biological pathways, networks and molecular systems will require information from several levels. At the genetic level, the architecture of regulatory interactions will need to be identified in different cell types, requiring, among other things, methods for simultaneously monitoring the expression of all genes in a cell. At the gene-product level, similar techniques that allow in vivo, real-time measurement of protein expression, localization, modification and activity/kinetics will be needed. It will be important to develop, refine and scale up techniques that modulate gene expression, such as conventional gene-knockout methods, newer knock-down approaches and small-molecule inhibitors to establish the temporal and cellular expression pattern of individual proteins and to determine the functions of those proteins. This is a key first step towards assigning all genes and their products to functional pathways.’ A Vision for the Future of Genomics Research, US National Human Genome Research Institute, 2003

‘Next, the view of evolution as chronic bloody competition among individuals and species, a popular distortion of Darwin’s notion of ‘survival of the fittest’, dissolved before a new idea of cooperation, strong interation and mutual dependence among life forms. Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking, lifeforms multiplied and complexified by co-opting others, not just by killing them.’ Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution 1987, Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan

‘Conflict only arises when there is confusion about what constitutes biological ‘reality’. I take the position that organisms are as real, as fundamental, as irreducable as the molecules of which they are made. They are a separate and distinct level of emergent biological order.’ Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed its Spots, Phoenix, 1994

The Co-operative Gene 1

Umbilical leaf is married to the tree,

shares milk of Sun and chlorophyll -

trembling bones of the hunted white hare

cannot be rattled from his envelope of fur.

Genes of my heart, my reddest sea-blood,

cannot be prised like nuggets from earth -

their Herculean task; energy to beat, keep

time, circulate, oxygenate - separated off,

described as independent selfish entities;

alien to the contesting metaphor, of love.


One is married to the whole;

the sum of the parts exists -

however we dissolve to bones,

genes, genome, atoms, energy,

we exist first in this actual way -

in this skin, author of these eyes.

However photosensitive cells

developed from early blue sea,

my sight is now mine -

loading this burning tree

rain cannot quench;

this ragged flower

like summer’s battle flag

surrendering to autumn.


I is an overwhelming concept,

informing to the last nucleus

of the last cell; tying my DNA

like a spider’s captured prey -

there is no escape, get-out clause.

No excuse - my hand is my own -

like Gaius Mucius Scaevola,

it could be put into the flame

to prove my total mother-love -

and would not turn, strangle me

to prove the selfish nature of its genes -

my stomach will not refuse more booze,

(except in extremis), at my liver’s request -

my lips will keep on sucking sugar, sweets,

despite blubbering protest from fatty hips.

I slump on the sofa, watch TV, despite all

hollering from my whole body - my heart.

The only selfishness observed in the cells

is a desire to keep me alive;

and ungrateful I, is the slob.

‘At the start of the 20th century a Russian biologist, C.Mereschkowsky, proposed that the intricate structure of the eukaryotic cell must have arisen in large part as a coalition of various prokaryotes. In particular, the mitochondria and chloroplasts could be seen as prokaryotic would-be parasites that had found lodging within the body of some larger prokaryote, and stayed there – eventually evolving into the organelles we see today. Like many great and revolutionary ideas on science this one was more or less ignored. But in recent decades the American biologist Lynn Margulis became its champion, and has elaborated upon it. Now this coalition idea is effectively the orthodoxy.’ Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell, Colin Tudge, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

‘I want to return to the gene’s eye’d view and push the idea of universal symbiosis – ‘living together’ – to its ultimate conclusion. But where Margulis and Lovelock invoke the poetry of cooperation and amity as primary in the union, I want to do the opposite and regard it as a secondary consequence. At the genetic level, all is selfish…’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘In general, the mitochondiral DNA is controlled by the nuclear DNA. The two sources of genes work in close collaboration.’ Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell, Colin Tudge, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

‘ thing that makes this hard to see today is the intensely individualistic ideology which pervades recent sociobiological discussions of evolution – their suggestion that organisms evolve so exclusively by competition that co-operation at any level is not just wrong but impossible, since it is contrary to nature. The story is officially based on Darwin’s work , but is actually much more extreme than anything to be found there. Its real ancestor is Herbert Spencer. The remarkable thing about it is the unbalanced rhetoric in which it is expressed, the lurid imagery used to inflate an interesting but modest range of facts about natural selection into an all-purpose individualistic melodrama…the innumerable altruistic and co-operative activities which are well known to occur among plants and animals are treated as if they were all just devious stratagems to produce more descendents…Things are then further confused by sometimes – but not always – attributing these motives to the genes rather than to the organisms themselves. By accepting all these odd moves, sociobiologists are able to conclude that the blackbird which gets eaten by the cat in trying to protect its young has actually pulled off a selfish coup, because (since its young survive) it has arranged to have more descendents than the blackbird next door, which didn’t do so. Alternatively, if the selfishness is attributed to the gene, the bird itself is merely a robot, a helpless puppet used to maximise the spread of its genes. Both these interpretations enable the authors to feel confident that they have shown that ordinary affection (something which is clearly an unbearable embarrassment to them) cannot be a real determinant of behaviour.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

Nothing matters except that which is left out

In the theory of the selfish gene, nothing matters

except that which is left out – love and affection;

those things ignored, so calamitously unreported -

which sail about the world; evanescing, necessary,

like stars in such bleakness. Care for others, weak,

vulnerable, suffering - our charity for those we’ve

never met and never will; how perverted to ascribe

this reaching for the light as just another example

of our kingly, despotic selfishness, perhaps this time

helping the whole of humanity; therefore, somehow

helping ourselves, our base and selfish species.

Or that crap stuff about how doing good work

in the world is only for our own selfish benefit;

what wicked fictional excuse for doing nothing

good - go tell your theory to the starving child

eating food; dirty, beaten dog wagging his tail.

And theories must be taken seriously, for how else

did they turn their immaterial bones - written skin -

into the deaths and bones of men; and here, how cruel

to empty out our jewellery box - taken centuries to fill

with such bright treasures; when already, dark theories

have seemed to steal God, angels, so many good things.

Surely not humanity too, making men the most miserable

creature out - pseudo-creature anyway; just warring sack

of hustling, bustling Machiavellian genes. Beauty, love -

compassion, all illusions, delusions; sly, pretty ornaments.

‘In the real world, as many biologists have pointed out, co-operation and competition go together as two sides of the same coin and, of the two, when things get at all complicated, co-operation must usually come first because it makes other interactions possible. If we consider how much co-operation is needed to organise even a competitive insitutition such as the stock-exchange – or, indeed, even to organise a single school sports day  - this should surely be obvious.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘Team-work by the cell-masses. Chalky spicules of bone-in-the-making shot across the screen, as if labourers were raising scaffold-poles. The scene suggested positive behaviour by individual cells, and still more by colonies of cells arranged as tissues and organs.’ EG Drury, Psyche and the Physiologists and other Essays on Sensation, 1938

‘In social animals ‘natural selection’ will adapt the structure of each individual for the benefit of the community; if each in consequence profits by the selected change.’ Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859

‘There is as much co-operation in biology as there is competition. Mutualism and symbiosis – organisms living together in states of mutual dependency, such as lichens that combine a fungus with an alga in happy harmony, or the bacteria in our guts, from which we benefit as well as they – are an equally universal feature of the biological realm. Why not argue that ‘co-operation’ is the great source of innovation, as in the enormous step, aeons ago, of producing a eukaryotic cell, one with a true nucleus, which came about by the co-operation of two or three prokaryotes, cells without nuclei?” Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed its Spots, Phoenix, 1994

The ‘Co-operative Gene’ doesn’t have quite the same ring

The ‘Co-operative Gene’ doesn’t have quite the same ring -

is that why they chose to focus, be breathtakingly selective,

on this interpretation as the sole driving force behind natural

selection - determined to make a cut-throat world, with man

the most desperate creature - incapable of true compassion -

when it is his saving grace, his halo; his defining redemption.

If all was competition - instead of conflict being an aspect -

we would never get anything done; including making more

of us. What greater co-operation could there be - emotional

learning - understanding of love’s compass, than a parent’s

passion for their offspring – such perversity to say the only

motive must be selfish, solipsistic, as any mother will know.

The selfish gene is a myth

The selfish gene is a myth, story;

one vision of the facts, presented

for our delectation, comprehension;

mulling over experience, intuition -

empirical comparison with life -

what sentences, paragraphs mean.

The selfish gene is interpretation;

personal illustration – a metaphor

given blood - Frankenstein concept.

Chemicals imbued with personality.

‘Modern Darwinism describes the evolutionary process as one driven by competition, survival and selfishness. This makes sense to us in terms of our experience or our own culture and its values…Darwinian metaphors are grounded in the myth of human sin and redemption… But Darwinism short-changes us as regards our biological natures. We are every bit as co-operate as we are competitive, as altruistic as we are selfish, as creative and playful as we are destructive and repetitive. And we are biologically grounded in relationships which operate at all the different levels of our beings… These are not romantic yearnings and utopian ideals. They arise from a rethinking of our biological natures that is emerging from the sciences of complexity.’ Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed it Spots, Phoenix, 1994

‘When the idea of Gaia was first introduced, one of the things that shocked scientists about it was the way in which it clashed with this individualistic picture, which they were then accustomed to think of as particularly scientific. It seemed to them that they were being asked to accept an idea of organisms working cosily together to improve their environment, an idea which was incompatible with their evolving by cut-throat competition.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003


Is this picture of ourselves; as purely, unalterably, made-by-Nature,

selfish - competitive, one of the reasons we have allowed ourselves

to wreck planet Earth – destroyed it according to our selfish nature -

for short term gain, comfort. Excused our lack of moral sensibility,

responsibility - because it’s how we have been made; in developing

from a ruthless principle that trampled dinosaurs - burns tigers, and

swats symbolic butterflies, the creatures imprisoned in our own zoo.

Just keeper of our warring genes who call the tune - a devilish jig

from Tam O’ Shanter - dark spirits stitched in human skin - spun

solely as a home for genes. Your eyes do not contain those lights,

except to warm my own cold face; but wait, if this selfishness was

indeed the case, how could the genes allow the wreck of Earth, of

their home on which they all depend - very environment required

for paramount survival. Surely they would have self-destructed -

if they themselves were bringing about their own disaster, failure,

death, obviously without hope of altruistic rescue; self obliterating.

‘At the local level, organisms do indeed compete with one another and neighbouring species. But one of the ways in which they compete is finding ways of improving their environment, features which alter it – say, by making it warmer or wetter – in a way that helps them to survive… Such improvements can help others without damaging those who make them, because they expand the living-opportunities available to all in the system. That is how life was able to spread so widely over the planet in the first place.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

Ultimate Co-operation of Genes

Even trees, holding out hand skeletons

webbed with green skin, breathe for us;

sunlight, chemicals, photosynthesis,

recycling rain, enriching circulation.

Tree systems so intimately entwined

with lungs and red sea blood, human

oxygenation, parting would be smothering

to death. Evolved relatives, skin and wood

brothers; roots, feet from metalled earth,

where we rose, crawled, stumbled, flew

so slowly in our many shifting bodies -

our intimacy hand and heart with Earth,

environment dreaming more creatures,

her green work, crowned with flowers –

air, oxygen, sea, moon, storm and magnetism;

gravity, stars, orbit, tides, seasons, light, dark -

if every part and energy were named -

every creature listed, each last follicle,

molecule; atom, nucleus, electron -

all would be connected to the whole.

Independence is an illusion, convenient label,

tool; bleeding, dissected - innacurate concept. 

I could not be more Scottish

I could not be more Scottish; one look

and you will see centuries – millennia,

of people made in this environment -

reflecting the landscape, light and air;

as surely as any adapted creature

evolving cell by cell. A shifting,

as my black molecules bleached

in this small white/blue country;

eyes took on the pale, scoured greyish

pigment of bitter North sea - reflected

exactly. Skin ghosting white mountains,

where snow lies in the breast of summer;

hair tough enough to cope with salt wind -

like yellow straw, or skeletal whin-shades.

Shells at my fingertips, salmon pink.

Such a big landscape, so few people;

isolated, contained, working earth -

so intimate, no wonder there is love.

‘At the present day the idea of the Selfish Gene owes much of its appeal to recent revivals of this individualistic pattern. Actual genes are not really indvidualistic in this way at all: they are elements in a whole within which they need to co-operate quite closely. The weaknesses of social-contract thinking, and of excessive invidudalism generally, are now widely acknowledged.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘…man is the child of man. He comes from the belly of another human creature, seeded there by a third. He can become conscious of his thoughts and feelings only by articulating them in a language developed by communication with his fellows. Even in his inmost nature he is defined by interaction with other beings around him.’ Michael Frayn, Constructions, Wildwood House, 1964

The Selfish Man is the Rotten Apple

The selfish man is the rotten apple -

spreading disease, infecting society;

do not give him a theory to excuse

incubation of base, lower instincts,

largely overcome by most, believing

in higher attributes. But he is weak -

susceptible to bad flattery, self delusion -

gross exaggeration of trait being crowned

king, primal force; Evolution’s beautiful

weaving polluted - perverted, wronged -

so easily used to contaminate society

with poisonous principle when every

person knows the true call of being human

is to be better, more altruistic, more caring.

That grace is real, found in loving others -

helping everywhere; turning events better

by your own presence, your own effects -

being kind not weakness, pity, but strength.

The ‘Selfish Gene’ - mechanical, plural

human being, driven solely by survival,

is just a snappy metaphor; a too-clean theory

woven trendily from selective excised scraps,

incomplete observation, rationalisation.

Non-empirical, tempts the demoralised,

disappointed mind - seeking absolution

from responsibility and poor behaviour.

Such wretched interpretation, poor summation -

stripping Evolution of her gifts, glories, zeniths;

and not one gene-created mother alive would agree

this sad, miserable theory, holds regarding children.

Co-operative Gene 2

The principle of the co-operative gene

is antidote to the damaging metaphor –

the world in need of alternative theories;

for healing of the green, warring people.

The co-operative gene began as a star

in the seeded darkness of possibility -

radiant, evanescing through air, water,

earth - all cells coagulating - looking

up once more towards an original light;

feeling conjunction, union, dependence.

Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Story
    Romantic Science
    Some Special Genes
        Homeotic Genes
        Embryo Story
        The Amazing Tale of
        Cell Division
        The ‘Selfish’ Gene
    X & Y

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