Lloyd Gerson objected to Dawkins’s selfish gene theory by noting that nothing – genes included – lives any longer by reproduction. It’s not as if anyone thinks that having kids will add years to your life. But Dawkins’s whole theory of the gene can be viewed as a response to this since he denies that genes are the chemical bits within the cells, or anything else that can live or die. While “gene” is more a placeholder for a unit of genetic information than an agreed upon structure, no physical structure is a gene but merely encodes them. Asking “where is a gene?” is like asking where the song Chopsticks is. There is probably sheet music for it somewhere, but we wouldn’t destroy the song by burning that page; there are particular performances of it, but the song doesn’t cease to exist when the performance does; and all this is just as true of my memories of the song or your ability to play it. Anything with a particular, concrete existence – whether in ink, air, neurons or soul – merely encodes the song.
The gene, which generalizes to the meme, is exactly what Plato called form, and which has proven a concept that Western thought has found it extremely difficult to live without. Dawkins’s teaching on genes is just an instance of the Scholastic axiom that first actuality is for the sake of second, or that the structure of things is caused by something we want them to do. We explain the structure and powers of a human being in exactly the same way we explain the parts of a can opener – we engineered it by starting with an action we wanted to happen. For Dawkins, this action is simply the continued existence of the gene by its continual encoding, and which makes it a unit of natural selection.
But does the gene pre-exist its encoding, or does it need the encoding to exist? The two are obviously incompatible, and the first renders the second superfluous. But we can solve the paradox easily if we recognize that the gene isn’t striving to avoid non existence, but to communicate the existence it has. In other words, it isn’t existence or survival that the gene is striving for but incarnation. The gene transcends material existence, but it did not view this transcendence as something to be grasped at.