Sunday, 1 July 2007

The Selfish Gene: That difficult first chapter

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.


Jason Powell said...

Hey dude,

It's Ocean Doot from the Alan Moore boards. Thought I'd check out your blog!

Good post about Dawkins. This was required reading for me in college and I was surprised at how many fellow students seemed to miss his point (we were, after all, forced to read beyond the first chapter).

Maybe part of the problem is that Dawkins saves his big reveal -- the idea of "memes" -- until way late in the book (like Chapter Nine or thereabouts, as I recall?). It's such a key part of his thesis -- the fact that culture has pervaded us to the point that we very commonly work against biological imperatives. (I remember another example he gave was welfare -- essentially a way of helping the weak to survive, which is counter to Darwin's most famous buzz-phrase about evolution.)

I really like Dawkins. He was the first author I read to really make the idea of evolution make real-world sense, and replace some of the popular, general notions about evolution with some cold hard detail about how it works.

Johnny Walker said...

Hi Jason! Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and post some kind words about it; it's much appreciated!

Dawkins is a special one. Even if I don't always like the way he comes across, he's excellent at explaining complicated things in the most direct way possible.

Johnny Walker said...

Minor update: In a recent magazine I stumbled upon (I forget the name of it), Dawkins explains that he (now) thinks religion is actually created from a genetic human need (that's right need). He then explains that his only problem with it is the gullibility it can instil in people, which can sometimes lead them into doing unspeakable things in the name of their faith.

I whole-heartedly agree, and I'm glad that Dawkins has said something with a bit of humanity and respect to those who choose to have faith (if not necessarily to the faith itself).

Johnny Walker said...

Minor update on the minor update: I re-read his quote (which was in answer to a reader's question in Focus Magazine), and it seems I was being too kind to Mr. Dawkins.

He actually describes religion as being a "side-effect" to something else (of what he doesn't even hazard a guess), in the same way a moth's ability to navigate via the moon can lead it to burning to death in a candle flame...

Nice, Mr. Dawkins, very nice.

Jason Powell said...

(I may be posting this twice. If so, sorry ... wasn't sure if the first attempt whent through)

There definitely seems to be an unfortunate tendency on Dawkins' part to tear down religion at times when he'd better serve his aims by building UP his own theories.

That's why I like "Selfish Gene." It's a great example of technical writing that walks a layman through complicated ideas. "Explaining complicated things in the most direct way possible," as you put it. Spot on!

It's funny -- I read a lot of superhero comics, as I've said on the Moore board -- and they often will do stories where a character's origin or gimmick is based on generic notions of evolution. Ever since reading "The Selfish Gene" I simply can't stand those types of stories, because now that I get how evolution works, those stories just seem unbelievably brainless.

By the way, I've got a blog too -- give it a visit if you have a free moment! Doesn't go into as much depth as yours. It's more a place where I can drop the occasional goofy thing that's on my mind, or showcase some silly piece of writing that I can't really showcase anywhere else.

Roderick said...

Ahh, now here's a topic I like. I love Dawkins' work, thought The Selfish Gene was much better than The God Delusion (though maybe that was because I was already familiar with much of what was written in the latter, but not in the former).

On the topic of if there is a genetic craving for religious belief, there are multiple ideas roaming around. Dawkins tends to write it off to the 'memes', which in the religious idea seem to have taken on extraordinary survival abilities (for instance the right mixture between coercion, threat and seduction). But then I recently read an excellent book, also an oldie, by Desmond Morris, "The Naked Ape", and Morris proposes an interesting alternative theory, which I'll try to explain briefly.

We evolved from the monkeys and became carnivorous. Treebased monkeys have a completely different social structure than roaming carnivores. Monkeys and apes have one distinct leader of the troupe that is an unchallenged dictator. There's a strict hierarchy with this one monkeyboss at the top. Carnivores, however, don't have such a strict caste system because they need to work together to take down prey. Certainly, there must be a leader, but he must cooperate and even the weakest members of the group are valuable. Now, because of this evolutionary change, primitive man suddenly found itself without a rigid boss-entity telling it what to do. It still had the genetic disposition towards acknowledging and obeying such a figure however, and Morris eloquently argues for our invention of God springing from that genetic need.

Ahhh, I love evolution biology.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks for your comment, Roderick, although I'm not sure I subscribe to Desmond Morris's theory. I tend to lean towards the idea that we're more concious of our surroundings and ourselves thanks to the evolution, and as a result we have a lot of important questions we can never know the answers to.

Religion gives us the soft blanket necessary to deal with such harsh questions, and as the late Kurt Vonnegut once said, "we humanists would never wish atheism on anyone, it's too painful" (paraphrase).

I heartily agree, and as George Carlin once said, "religion is fine until someone starts taking it too seriously".

Roderick said...

I could not disagree more with Vonneguts (obviously ironic) statement! I take great comfort from my atheism. There is just as much beauty, elegance and wonder to be extracted from the miracles of science as from scripture. And actually, I get the best of both worlds, as I can still enjoy the poetic beauty of ancient myths and gruesome historic tales without necessarily believing in them.

I do agree with Carlin, but I'd like to add that it's basically an inherent trait of religion that you have to take it seriously. If you don't, what's the point of believing it? I'm sure there are loads of moderate believers (the majority, actually), but in my eyes if you truly believe and follow scripture, you will automatically be lead to a fundamentalist position. Otherwise it's like you're just cherry-picking from the holy books, which, again, defeats the point -because why follow a religion then in the first place? For example, it would be weird if you went to church and prayed for people and everything, but then not be of the opinion that I will go to hell for being an atheist.

But about soft blankets and harsh questions, I must reiterate; I find more comfort in actually knowing the scientific, hard-core answer to questions so that I can use this knowledge in my life than have symbolic stories that make me feel good about the questions forever remaining questions :)

Johnny Walker said...

Vonnegut's comment was far from ironic (just so you don't go around thinking it was).

I understand your feelings surrounding the "cherry pickers", but really, if you're familiar with the Bible, you'll know you've pretty much got no choice but to "cherry pick" what works for you. (Do you allow yourself to wear wool and linen? etc)

Things are complicated further in religions that allow man to have a say (for example, the Catholic Church and Papal Infallibility).

Still, the bottom line is that science can never definitively answer certain questions: What happens to our consciousness when we die? Is existence pointless? (If so, why should we follow any moral code?) Are the people we love really gone forever when they die?

Hope, believe it or not, is the only logical answer to these questions when someone is faced with the abyss. If someone is struggling with the fact that their child is terminally ill with cancer, it's not helpful to point out the atheist belief that the child's life was merely the result of a chance encounter of atoms in an infinite and unyielding universe. If, however, that person finds comfort in the belief that they will see their child again, then that is helpful.

There is no such solace to be found in science. It's why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle continued to be religious. It's why Carl Sagan wrote Contact. It's why Darwin considered himself agnostic.

I can only imagine that someone who felt absolutely no sense of fear when faced with the above questions must be an incredibly cold and unloving human being.

Vonnegut, for example, became honorary president of the American Humanist Association, which tries to live to the ideals of religion without involving God or supernaturalism (or as he as put it: "I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead.").