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Selfish genes and the mind

 

 
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To mark the 30th anniversary of Richard Dawkins’s book, Oxford University Press is to issue a collection of essays about his work. Here, professor of psychology at Harvard University, Steven Pinker, wonders if Dawkins’s big idea has not gone far enough. Yes, genes can be selfish US television talk-show host Jay Leno, interviewing a passer-by: […]

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Posted March 5, 2006 by thomasr

 
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To mark the 30th anniversary of Richard Dawkins’s book, Oxford University Press is to issue a collection of essays about his work. Here, professor of psychology at Harvard University, Steven Pinker, wonders if Dawkins’s big idea has not gone far enough.

Yes, genes can be selfish

US television talk-show host Jay Leno, interviewing a passer-by: “How do you think Mount Rushmore was formed?”

Passerby: “Erosion?”

Leno: “Well, how do you think the rain knew to not only pick four presidents — but four of our greatest presidents? How did the rain know to put the beard on Lincoln and not on Jefferson?”

Passerby: “Oh, just luck, I guess.”

I AM A COGNITIVE SCIENTIST, someone who studies the nature of intelligence and the workings of the mind. Yet one of my most profound scientific influences has been Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist. The influence runs deeper than the fact that the mind is a product of the brain and the brain a product of evolution; such an influence could apply to someone who studies any organ of any organism. The significance of Dawkins’s ideas, for me and many others, runs to his characterisation of the very nature of life and to a theme that runs throughout his writings: the possibility of deep commonalities between life and mind.

Dawkins’s ideas repay close reflection and re-examination, not because he is a guru issuing enigmatic pronouncements for others to ponder, but because he continually engages the deepest problems in biology, problems that continue to challenge our understanding.

When I first read Dawkins I was immediately gripped by concerns in his writings on life that were richer versions of ones that guided my thinking on the mind. The parallels concerned both the content and the practice of the relevant sciences.

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thomasr

 


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