Back to article index
Previous page


In our own time, one of the most prominent spokesmen for materialism - understood here as the view that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter - is Daniel Dennett, author of the ambitiously titled Consciousness Explained. [11] Dennett is closely associated with Richard Dawkins and with Dawkins' central thesis of the 'selfish gene' - the idea that the driving force of evolution towards ever more complex life forms is the drive of a 'replicator' to survive and reproduce itself. The term 'gene' to describe a replicator is a term of convenience. More precisely Dawkins would talk of 'any stretch of DNA beginning and ending at arbitrarily chosen points on the chromosome' (The Extended Phenotype [12], p.87). Dawkins argues against the way in which most people probably understand 'natural selection' or 'survival of the fittest' - that it is the adaptations of whole organisms or even of whole species that drive the process. For Dawkins 'Evolution is the external and visible manifestation of the differential survival of alternative replicators. Genes are replicators: organisms and groups of organisms are best not regarded as replicators. They are vehicles in which replicators survive at the expense of other replicators. Vehicle selection is the process by which some vehicles are more successful than other vehicles in ensuring the survival of their replicators.' (p.82)

[11] Daniel C. Dennett: Consciousness Explained, Penguin Books, 1993. First published by Little, Brown and Company, 1991.
[12] Richard Dawkins: The Extended Phenotype, Oxford University Press, 2008. First published 1982, revised and extended in 1999.

In The Selfish Gene [13] he provocatively describes the whole organisms, ourselves included, as 'lumbering robots' (p.19) created by the replicators to ensure their own survival and reproduction. This occurs through the Darwinian process of natural selection in which the replicators band together initially into small, single cell, life forms. Mutations that occur arbitrarily are passed on to the copies (copying themselves is what makes replicators replicators). If they are harmful to the life form that serves as their vehicle then it will be at a disadvantage and may die out; but if they are beneficial the life form is at an advantage and may flourish. A whole chain of such adaptations occurring over billions of years eventually produces us. His own account is of course much more convincing than my summary!

[13] Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 2006. First published in 1976.

We have seen Bogdanov, the disciple of Mach, arguing that the Universe is a ceaseless drive from chaos to ever higher forms of organisation. Which suggests that Nature (since Bogdanov certainly believes that Nature precedes the emergence of human brains) has an end in view - to overcome its own chaos - and has fashioned human minds as a means of furthering this aim. Such a view dovetails with the Marxist view of a continual progress towards a Socialist future. But the Marxist view is dependent on the 'dialectic' as a motor for change, for movement in a progressive direction, borrowed from Hegel, a process originally designed to show the progress of philosophical discussion - thesis, antithesis, synthesis. In Hegel this use of an intellectual method as an engine for progress makes sense since he is an Idealist and sees Mind as the fundamental reality, but it is difficult to reconcile with a thoroughgoing materialism since matter by definition cannot have needs or formulate ends (and according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics it has a perpetual tendency towards decay). Dawkins, like Bogdanov, sees evolution as a drive towards ever greater organisation and complexity but with his 'selfish gene' he proposes a motor for the process which does not imply any sort of teleology, any preconceived end that would in turn imply some sort of transcendental consciousness. To quote Susan Blackmore: 'Put into Richard Dawkins’s language, if there is a replicator that makes imperfect copies of itself only some of which survive, then evolution simply must occur.' [14] Nonetheless it still seems to me that something resembling consciousness is implied in the 'will' of the replicator to survive and to replicate itself, not to mention the immense ingenuity required to develop such useful vehicles as ourselves.

[14] Susan Blackmore: The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, 2000. First published 1999, p. 10.