the peacock problem


Popular commentators on evolution, such as Richard Dawkins, have become overly enamoured with the idea of the gene. Genetics is certainly the most powerful mechanism of evolution and was unknown in Charles Darwin’s time but although we have learned much from sequencing DNA, the idea of the gene does not explain everything about the living world and certainly not about the human world. However, just as Herbert Spencer used the notion of the “survival of the fittest” to explain why some people are rich and others are poor, so Dawkins argues that culture has genes, too – self-replicating particles of information that he calls “memes” (think of the dumb jokes and “viral” videos that proliferate on the internet). If all evolution happens for the sake of proliferating selfish genes, then everything we see in living creatures has to be useful and practical. But that’s not at all how Darwin saw it. He envisioned as at least two distinct processes: natural selection and sexual selection. The former concerns the survival of the fittest. The latter, however, is an aspect of evolution that is too often overlooked today.

more from David Rothenberg at The New Statesman here.