Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene, and the selfish-gene theory it embraces have massive implications on human understanding. Traditional Darwinian evolution would say “survival of the fittest” implying that we’re all a bunch of selfish beings focused on our own survival. The selfish gene theory changes that. My essay The Gene-ish Self takes a look at this new perspective and puts it in the context of our lives. What does it mean to be “a gene replication machine”? How is our modern world a refection of our genetic drives? And most importantly, what can we learn from our natural drives to be able to have a better life?
Below is an excerpt from The Gene-ish Self: An Essay on the True Nature of You
Natural selection is not evil – in fact, it is the only good thing in the universe. There has been much confusion and abuse of natural selection as a concept and this essay hopes to set the record straight. Yes, natural selection created life on this planet, it made people out of monkeys, but it also is the driving force in our high-tech world today. Most people miss that last part. I’m here to show you that a world created by natural selection does not mean we live by the Law of the Jungle. It is not inherently selfish, but rather gene-ish. Insights into natural selection have given us not only new ways to look at biology but also at our own modern lives. What do they mean for you and how can you use that information to have a more focused life?
Chapter 1: People are…
We’ve heard so many one-liners to explain people. People are assholes. People are crazy. People are love itself. Buddhism will say that people are inherently good – if they are evil, it is only because they are ignorant. Educate them and they will be good. Christianity says that people are sinners by nature, but they can at least get a ticket to paradise by doing what Jesus did. And of course, just in watching the world go by, we all have considered the idea that people are selfish by nature. “Whatever it is we are doing on this planet, we are doing it for ourselves.” But it’s all incomplete.
Most of you have been called selfish at some point. Some of you have only heard this statement on TV. Well done. Some people are selfish all the time. The rest of us are selfish on occasion. There are moments when we look out for ourselves and could give a damn about the rest of the world. It happens, but we are encouraged by others to be the opposite – to be giving, to be moral, and generous. Wait a minute… why is it always other people who encourage us to be giving? Selfish bastards. They want us to give to them!
It’s our life, so of course we want what’s best for us. But we also want what’s good for other people. Don’t you love to give to other people? Maybe we just wish it didn’t cost so much time, energy, and money. Religion pushes us to be selfless. As a Catholic-educated Loyola Don, I was a “man for others”. And they would tell us of the selfish implications of scientific world views. Evolution was evil – it was “survival of the fittest” and “every man for himself”. They called it evil-ution (no they didn’t, but it would have been a good dig). How can we reconcile this drive to give with the traditional view of evolution as something selfish? Even many scientists today believe that a world based on natural selection is evil. I don’t buy it.
What is the real story that evolution is telling us? Natural selection has not made us selfish. Quite the contrary, it has made us the most giving, trustworthy species of animal ever to order a fruit basket for someone. Not only did our evolutionary history make us a species who gave readily to members of their own clan, our evolutionary present and future is making us into a species that gives to complete strangers who have no way and no intention of ever returning the favor. “For he’s a jolly good fellow”, indeed.
Some of you may know The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. This article is an evolutionary step in making his work slightly more relevant to your life – a life that wants to be all that it can be, but wants to give as much as it can too. Getting and giving have a lot to do with each other and that the gene-centered view of evolution that Dawkins championed holds the key to both.
Chapter 2: Where you come from and what you want
In my book, Quanology: Evolution & You, I explain that if we want to truly know ourselves, we have to know where we came from. We are dressed up and driving cars today, but not too long ago we were doing other things. If evolution created us, and it really, really looks like it did, then we have to know two things:
- What it created us to do
- What environment it created us for
The gene-centered view of evolution tells us that we are created to pass on our genes. Evolution has made sure that biologically every fiber of your being, everything you do, everything you want to do is directed to passing on your genes. If you didn’t really care about that sort of thing and cared rather about something else, then your genes died out. All animals on the planet, including us, care about passing on our genes.
As for the environment, scientists conclude that biological evolution created us for another time and another place. It’s 2014 and we live all over the planet, not thanks to our bodies, but to our culture. Our bodies, and that includes our brains, were built for a time and place I call The Sweet Spot (and scientists, with their wonderfully dry terms, call it the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA). Understanding that environment is crucial to understanding yourself, because that’s what evolution does, it creates living things to fit into a specific environment. So, what was The Sweet Spot like? What about it made us who we are today? Let’s see.
It was about 50,000 years ago on the African grasslands. 50,000 years ago was when we stopped evolving biologically and started evolving culturally. That means, Nature didn’t change our bodies, we changed our environment to suit our bodies. We built houses, wore clothes, and farmed plants and animals. Now, this wasn’t exactly 50,000 years ago, just like E.T. didn’t exactly come out in 1982. It first came out in the US, then it came out in Europe, then Asia, and there may even be some parts of the world that never had E.T. in theaters. Today, there are some tribes that still live much as they did in The Sweet Spot. They have not upgraded to modern culture. They never got E.T. in their local theater and they never got a local theater. In that sense, The Sweet Spot is a moving target. It was about 50,000 years ago when the move started, but the conditions that were inherent to it are pretty much universal.
Some of those conditions are as follows: people lived in small tribes of no more than 200 people. You were related to everyone in your group on some level. You knew them all, they knew you. So, internal relations tended to be relatively smooth and egalitarian. External relations, that is, with other groups, were a different story. There were tense relationships with other tribes. Frequent skirmishes and fighting. Occasional serious wars. Food was either caught or picked and it could get scarce. All these elements together paint a picture of a species holding on for dear life, often living on the edge of starvation and violent death, but competing with each other to get a bigger slice of the pie.
But other conditions also had a serious impact on who we were – the conditions inside our bodies. I’m referring to our reproductive equipment. Men have sperm and women have eggs. These two products come at a different cost. Sperm is cheap and eggs are expensive.
This is The Sweet Spot and it shaped our behavior. Scarce food made us overeaters. Social landscapes made us smart. And our reproductive organs made us aggressive and adulterous.
This is who we are. “You can take the boy out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the boy”. Even though we don’t live there anymore, our bodies and a large part of our brain do. It is what we were built for. We may have left The Sweet Spot by creating technologies that allowed us to change our environment rather than have evolution change us to fit it, but our biology is still rooted there; the same drives we had then, we still have now. Those drives are all bound by our goal of genetic proliferation. Like every other animal and plant on the planet, we are trying to pass on our genes. Our bodies and our brains are simply vehicles to do this. As investors create companies to make money, our genes created bodies to make more copies of themselves.