The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition
WHY ARE PEOPLE?
Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. Ifsuperior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin. To be fair, others had had inklings of the truth, but it was Darwin who first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist. Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer to the curious child whose question heads this chapter. We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: ‘The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.’*
Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes round the sun, but the full implications of Darwin’s revolution have yet to be widely realized. Zoology is still a minority subject in universities, and even those who choose to study it often make their decision without appreciating its profound philosophical significance. Philosophy and the subjects known as ‘humanities’ are still taught almost as if Darwin had never lived. No doubt this will change in time. In any case, this book is not intended as a general advocacy of Darwinism. Instead, it will explore the consequences of the evolution theory for a particular issue. My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism.
Apart from its academic interest, the human importance of this subject is obvious. It touches every aspect of our social lives, our loving and hating, fighting and cooperating, giving and stealing, our greed and our generosity. These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s On Aggression, Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Love and Hate. The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene). It is ironic that Ashley Montagu should criticize Lorenz as a ‘direct descendant of the “nature red in tooth and claw” thinkers of the nineteenth century …’. As I understand Lorenz’s view of evolution, he would be very much at one with Montagu in rejecting the implications of Tennyson’s famous phrase. Unlike both of them, I think ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ sums up our modern understanding of natural selection
Before beginning on my argument itself, I want to explain briefly what sort of an argument it is, and what sort of an argument it is not. If we were told that a man had lived a long and prosperous life in the world of Chicago gangsters, we would be entitled to make some guesses as to the sort of man he was. We might expect that he would have qualities such as toughness, a quick trigger finger, and the ability to attract loyal friends. These would not be infallible deductions, but you can make some inferences about a man’s character if you know something about the conditions in which he has survived and prospered. The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. ‘Special’ and ‘limited’ are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense.
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