Richard Dawkins seems to enjoy ruffling feathers. Recently he's appeared to especially enjoy it when they're feathers belonging to someone who considers themselves religious. If it's not the brazenness he displays at writing The God Delusion, a book which, according to the introduction, was written in order to, um, "save" people from some sort of religious enslavement, then it's the vocal complaint that he was nominated for a book award alongside the Christian comedian Peter Kaye ("How can you take seriously someone who likes to believe something because he finds it 'comforting'?").
Back in 1976, with the publication of the highly acclaimed The Selfish Gene, he didn't focus entirely on the religious, but he still had an extremely unapologetic writing style; "keep up or tough luck" seemed to be his attitude. It's this attitude which I think might be partially responsible for The Selfish Gene developing its controversial reputation: If you miss something, it's easy to get the wrong end of the stick, especially with the book's potentially confusing first chapter (not to mention its title).
Is Dawkins really arguing that all humans are fundamentally selfish, and perhaps even that being selfish is 'natural', or worse, 'right'? For some reason, the intentions of the first chapter eluded me the first time around, so, with this in mind, I've decided to explain what I misinterpreted and misunderstood, assuming that, as Dawkins suggests in his endnotes, that I'm not the only who has ever gotten the wrong end of the stick. I hope it helps others besides me!
This is what Dawkins appears to be saying in no uncertain terms in the first chapter of The Selfish Gene:
People are "born selfish". This is the same for all of us. Our own survival is of the utmost importance. Above all else, in fact. Our genes, and by extension, 'nature', tell us not to help others if it is at a potential detriment to ourselves. This is the 'natural' state for human-beings.
It's very harsh sounding isn't it? It comes across as a bit of a grim look at humanity and it has upset a few people over the years, but is it really that controversial? Let's put it into the context that Dawkins seems to have well, almost deliberately, skated around: We're not talking about lending people money. We're not talking about letting them borrow a DVD. We're not talking about giving them a lift to the airport or donating to charity. We're talking, in simple terms, about life and death.
In a life or death situation, our genes tell us to high-tail it out of there and survive. So ingrained and recognisable is this trait within us, that we praise those who fight this instinct and risk their own lives to save others. We call them heroes. It's the highest praise that most of us could probably imagine giving anyone. We all know the potential sacrifice, we all know how brave and selfless a person needs to be in order to risk their own safety in order to save someone else.
When you think about the above, initially harsh-sounding, paragraph in those terms - in terms of throwing yourself in front of a bullet to save someone's life - it doesn't sound so explosive, does it?
If you're still not convinced that the above paragraph is true, then Dawkins offers a scientific theory as an example: If a community made up entirely of altruistic (pre-)people was attacked by a neighbouring community, the first ones to be attacked would stay and fight in order to let the others get away. They would automatically lay down their lives in order to ensure the other members of the community lived on.
What if, however, over thousands of years of genetic mutation, someone was born into the community who was fundamentally selfish in the way described above? That is to say, that this person, upon fearing attack, would immediately try to save their own skin, regardless of the rest of the community? Someone who would immediately flee at the first signs of danger, instead of staying and fighting in order to increase the chance of other's safe escape? Provided that person was the only person in the community with such selfish attributes, they would always survive attacks, as the altruistic members would sacrifice themselves in order to save those who could escape. By doing so, they would be ensuring that that selfish gene within that person would always survive, or at least, survive for some time.
Over that time the person could proliferate, spreading their "selfish gene" around the tribe, and creating more "selfish" members of the community. These people would, in theory, be more likely to survive attacks, as long as there were altruistic members willing to fight for them. Eventually, the altruistic genes within the tribe would begin to decrease in number, and the "selfish" ones would dominate.
You may be thinking, "ah, but that's when the community would fail" and you're possibly right, but, of course, things aren't really so black and white and our genes don't always control our behaviour. Dawkins doesn't offer a counter-argument to the idea that the important benefits of living as a community might be negated by being comprised of entirely selfish members, except with the implication that, over a long enough period, genetic altruism would essentially "die out", meaning it couldn't survive.
All of this isn't to say that such altruism doesn't exist in nature, or in humans. It does. That's also not to say that we don't have control over the urges of our genes. We do.
Altruism can be seen, for example, in animal behaviour; many species of bird, once having spotted a predator, will start making warning noises in order to alert other birds in the vicinity of the imminent danger. By doing this they're also making themselves a much more likely target for attack. In other animals, mothers can be observed deliberately attracting the attention of a predator in order to draw it away from their defenseless young, obviously at great personal risk. (Dawkins promises to explain such examples of altruism in nature in later chapters.)
We also have control over our genes. As Dawkins points out, we foil our gene's desire to replicate every time we use contraception. Another example of humans fighting their genetic instinct are the firefighters of 9/11 who went back to the Twin Towers in order to try and save stranger's lives. These brave people must have had an incredible desire for their own safety and security, but overrode those feelings with a conscious decision to help others. As I said before, we see these people as heroes (and rightly so), because we know how much sacrifice, will-power and bravery it must have taken to do such a thing.
So, the next time you read Dawkins arguing that our genes tell us all to be selfish, hopefully now the context in which he actually means it, will make his point a little less abrasive.