You’ve probably heard that genes want to make copies of themselves, and try to ensure survival and reproduction of their host so they make it into the next generation. These anthropomorphic phrases are useful shorthand for biologists, as most genes act as though they selfishly wish to reproduce, and it is easier for us to think about them if we imagine that they have intentions. However, it can be misleading and warp some people’s ideas of evolution if they believe genes are literally selfish, for example.
Genes have absolutely no desires, and therefore no will to get themselves replicated. It would be just as accurate (or inaccurate) to describe genes as wanting to cease to exist and have no further copies of themselves made. In reality, the reason the genes we see today are here is because of the fact that they are good at building survival machines and reproducing. It is simply the case that those genes that were most successful in reproducing became more common and survived this far, and it now appears as though those genes actually want to continue to reproduce into the future. What appears to be purposeful design (genes that are good at replicating themselves indirectly via survival machines) is actually just the result of billions of years of cumulative evolution that has favoured the best replicators, generation after generation.
There is a big difference between genes, without any motives, and individual survival machines, which follow goal-driven patterns of behaviour in order to (ultimately) reproduce. Genes are made up of a sequence of DNA, a code which can be read and translated into functional proteins that build up and create a working organism. Without a nervous system and capacity to think, it is clear that genes cannot truly have motives or goals. However, genes programme organisms to have proximate goals such as eating, mating and surviving. Emotions as we know them are our genes motivating our minds to do (or not to do) something. But genes are given no motivation and being successful is just something that occurs if their effect is to encode a survival machine that is well suited to reproducing in its particular environment.
It is interesting to be a human being, and ponder about our evolutionary past and its effects on our behaviour. We know that most of our actions exist to increase the spread and therefore success of our genes, but we have no qualms about thwarting them. Our genes don’t have a sense of happiness so we needn’t feel bad about doing it. But it seems inescapable to conclude that our genes created us to propagate them as much as possible. So are we somehow misbehaving or overruling them when we use birth control or adopt children?
The distinction to be made is whether we view genes as wanting to do something in future, or simply as the result of evolutionary history. Our genes did not create us so we could aid their replication. They created us because their lineage happened to be highly successful at replicating since life began on this earth! And they were successful because they had the effect of building appropriate survival machines. We needn’t try to help them, as they aren’t trying to do anything themselves. They simply exist due to the past successes of their lineage.
Genes drive our behaviour in ways that generally increase their chances of replication. However, we are not precisely motivated to replicate our genes – if we were there’d be long lines for donating to sperm banks and we wouldn’t use contraception. We’re actually motivated to find happiness by eating tasty foods, having sex with attractive partners, having friends, finding love, raising happy children and to have fun, satisfy our curiosity and find meaning in our lives. We’re programmed by our genes but we don’t seek to replicate them, we instead follow our human desires and goals wherever they may lead us.