George Walford: Genes Against Generosity

Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press 1976) sticks to the mind like a burr. His facts and illustrations carry impact. Taking the present population of Latin America (300 million) and the present rate of increase, he predicts that in less than 500 years, if this continues, people standing side by side will form a solid human carpet over the whole continent, that in 1,000 years they will be stacked more than a mile high, and that in 2,000 years this mass of human bodies will be expanding at the speed of light, reaching the edge of the known universe. (He doesn’t say what will be happening in 5,000 years, and perhaps we do better not to ask). On a less spectacular note, he points out that since populations tend to increase by a certain proportion per generation, a slower rate of growth can be achieved even with each couple having the same number of children as before; they just need to start breeding later in life.

He suggests that the continuity of culture can be broken down into the transmission of units such as clothes, fashions, ideas, catch-phrases, tunes, ways of building arches or making pots, and proposes for such a unit the term “meme.” A complex social institution, a church for example, with its architecture, rituals, canons, scriptures, art, doctrines and music would then be seen as a set of memes mutually assisting each other, each of them led to take part by a pseudo-ruthless pursuit of its own survival.

Other passages also provoke both active thoughts and strong feelings; Dawkins has things to say about biological relations between the sexes which we would hardly dare repeat to a feminist On one point we have to contradict him: The most complicated and perfectly-designed piece of machinery in the known universe is not an animal; this place belongs to society, incorporating (human) animals, with all their complexities, by the thousands of millions. His book is more of a piece than isolated comments may suggest; at the centre of this attention-catching display of intellectual fireworks stands a coherent argument, and although this is clear, strong and well- supported, yet it does not seem finally satisfying.

The striking title summarizes his theme. Lorenz, Ardrey and Eibl-Eibesfeldt have all given, fairly recently, general accounts of evolution carrying implications for our understanding of human society, and Dawkins condemns them all. They got it wrong. The idea which best enables us to understand how evolution works is not, as they held it to be, the good of the species or of the group, but the welfare of the individual gene. Each person can be treated as a selfish machine, programmed to ensure the survival of its constituent genes, and each survival machine treats others, having different genes, as merely parts of its environment, no more valuable than rocks or rivers or lumps of food. The concept turns out to be more sophisticated than at first appears, since a gene (at least as Dawkins uses the term), is not just a minute thing somewhere in your physical structure or in mine, but “all replicas of a particular bit of DNA, distributed through the world.” The same gene appears in a number of people, so that its pseudo-selfish pursuit of survival can produce some of the effects of altruism; it can “decide” to sacrifice itself in person A to ensure its survival in persons B,C,D… Genes being transmitted in the course of sexual reproduction, this happens mainly among close relatives, primarily between parents and children. Granting that the concept explains why members of a family can usually rely on each other, it remains difficult to see how the mechanism can explain diminution of the effect as the connection becomes more remote. It seems to be an all-or-nothing thing, unable to explain why a mother should be more willing to die for her child than for a second cousin twice removed who also carries one or more of her genes.

“Altruism” means more than a way of behaving towards close relatives. It refers to a principle which, at least according to some systems of ethics, ought to affect our conduct towards all human beings (and perhaps animals too) whether they share our genes or not. Dawkins accepts this. He is not advocating morality based on selfishness, but arguing that we are more likely to succeed in teaching generosity and altruism if we realise and remember that we are born selfish. Genetic traits can be culturally modified. This leaves a big question open: Where does this culture come from, with its impulses towards altruism and generosity? Not, apparently, from the influence of our genes, since that affects only behaviour towards relatives, offering nothing to help us understand why millions in the West should give to help starving Africans of different genetic constitution. Although, as Dawkins says, each person can be regarded as a selfish machine programmed to ensure the survival of its constituent genes, regarding people in this way does not enable us to understand all their behaviour. Dawkins’ argument is not simple, and it sometimes gets rather buried under the concrete details which make the book so readable; one can easily miss something. But after one reading, going back to check, and thinking about the book, it does seem that the concept of the selfish gene leaves a great part of human social behaviour to be explained on other principles.

from Ideological Commentary 38, March 1989.