Everybody knows the barroom philosopher (usually a post-collegiate male who is misdirecting his anger over not being able to get a date) who one night decides to spout on over a pitcher of pale ale about how “we’re all selfish” and “everything we do is selfish.” I’ve always despised this pseudo intellect, though I’ve never quite figured out why, and I’ve never directly confronted him. Inevitably, when he makes his argument, a well-meaning devil’s advocate will point to acts of altruism as proof that we are not, in fact, selfish—to which Frat Boy Socrates will respond, “A-ha! But when you do something altruistic, it makes you feel good. Therefore, even that is ultimately selfish.” To which I will respond (only in my head, because I’m severely conflict-averse) that if we were indeed “purely selfish,” then doing something altruistic wouldn’t make us feel good at all. And in fact, in such a state of selfish beginner’s mind, none of us would have the faintest concept of “altruism” in the first place. In fact, we would probably all be dead.
All of this made me a bit reluctant when a CSC (that’s Coffee Shop Colleague) named Stuart handed me The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, is best-known as one of the New Atheists. But unlike his supposed colleagues, he’s an actual scientist (an evolutionary biologist trained in zoology, to be exact), and he’s written actual science books. Originally published in 1976, The Selfish Gene is still considered Dawkins’ seminal work. Yet I braced myself for the possible discovery that Dawkins is nothing more than the Oxford-educated version of the Pale Ale Pontificator.
I was wrong. The Selfish Gene is a far more complicated affair than I was prepared for. First, it’s not a terribly accessible book for the non-scientist. I imagine that it was considered fairly commercial when it was first published, but in the intervening 35 years, the bar for “accessible” has been considerably lowered. (Today, it might be called 25 Reasons Why Genes Control You—and What You Can Do About It.)
Second, its gene-centricity goes far beyond the typical news item about the latest study identifying “the gene responsible for drivers not using their turn signals.” I’ve done a fair amount of marketing work for (and, in fact, named) The Delta Center at the University of Iowa, a group of scientists who rightly challenge a simplistic, gene-centered view of cognition and development. So I was skeptical about the book’s uber-gene-centered view of evolution.
Dawkins’ basic idea is that the smallest unit of evolution, subject to Darwin’s theories of natural selection, is not the species or even the individual; it’s the gene. In fact, he goes so far as to say that this is the very definition of “gene”: A gene is the smallest unit of natural selection.
What does this mean? If it’s possible to mangle Dawkins’ theory with my own non-scientific perspective, it’s this: The thing that strives to survive is not “human beings,” “Labrador retrievers” or “philodenrons”; it’s the individual genes that these living organisms house. Or I should say, the living organisms that these genes have built. Because according to Dawkins, every element of life on this planet is, to use his alarming yet usefully visual term, a “survival machine” built by its genes. In other words, genes pool their resources to build dinosaurs, oak trees and crooked politicians. And the fittest of these—the ones that are able to survive and adapt to their environments—reproduce and live on. Until they don’t. Let’s not forget that 99 percent of all species that have ever lived on this planet are extinct. And we’re just one of them. (Thank you for that, Bill Bryson. See: A Short History of Nearly Everything)
The Selfish Gene makes this case in extraordinary detail, and I can find no reason or way to dispute it. Dawkins attacks evolutionary models based on “group” and “individual” selection with gusto, which brings us back to the barroom discussion. After all, it’s one thing to think that we do what’s good for humanity (group selection). It’s another to think that we do whatever’s good for us (individual selection). But the entire discussion is blown apart by Dawkins’ idea that we are nothing more than hosts to begin with, and that what we do is ultimately an amalgamated result of our genes fighting or cooperating based on their own needs to proliferate.
I interpret Dawkins as generally seeing genes as little pieces of code: “If the sun gets in your eyes, close them.” These are the roots of adaptive behaviors, and (to put it simply), the “programs” that continue are the ones that are successful over time. This logically leads to a discussion of game theory, which I learned about on a macro level by reading The Predictioneer’s Game by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita a few years ago. And this makes understanding the barroom discussion even more interesting.
Here’s one example that I find instructive. Forgive me as I paraphrase from memory, using my own terminology.
Let’s say you have a bird with a gene-driven behavioral code of: “If you see another bird that needs grooming, groom it” (and let’s assume that by “grooming,” we mean a process of removing bugs that can kill you; so there’s quite a bit at stake). Call these the Givers. If you had a world filled with only these entities, you’d have, by many definitions, a Utopian society. But you can’t. Because the minute you do, you create a huge opportunity for a differently programmed bird who operates on the principle: “Accept grooming from someone else, but never reciprocate.” Call these the Takers. Throw this entity into the mix, and you can mathematically calculate the results: The Takers will quickly spread. But will they take over completely? No. Because if everybody takes and nobody gives, eventually no one gets groomed and the bugs kill them. So enter a third bird called The Conditional Giver. This bird reciprocates grooming only to those who give it first. Putting these three together does an interesting thing: it creates an ESS, or Evolutionarily Stable Strategy. None of the three groups can completely dominate, but each has a place in that system. And while their numbers can fluctuate slightly, over time they maintain a certain stasis.
Does this ring true? It does to me. I feel like I see it every day—especially during election season.
Which brings me to the third book that has stuck with me over the years: Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe in Atheists. While the book is meant to be a rebuttal to Dawkins and the New Atheists (and in some ways it is, which I won’t get into here), Hedges’ central belief only reinforces Dawkins’ theories in The Selfish Gene. Hedges states the bleakest idea I’ve ever heard: Human beings progress technologically, but they do not—and in fact cannot—progress morally.
While we all can point to atrocities around the globe at any given moment, I think most Americans have to admit that this idea still flies in the face of something we believe deep in our subconscious: that when you look at a country that is grossly imperfect, you can still point to some things—the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, to name just two—that point to an upward tick.
No, Hedges says. And when you take the Dawkins point of view, and imagine that the human species is basically the game theory exercise using those three kinds of birds, you can see why. We are in an evolutionary stable strategy that mixes altruism, selfishness and skepticism. And we are going nowhere.
Happy New Year!