Can we rebel against our genes?

RichardDawkins.net has recently posted a speech by Professor Dawkins at something called the New Scientist & Greenpeace Science debates. As I began to listen to it, my hackles began to rise slightly, because his ideas seemed to clash with passionately held ideas of my own. Fortunately I kept my ears open and my brain switched on, and I think that ultimately I do agree with Professor Dawkins’ thesis, though I’m not sure if I’ve understood it in the way he intended. I will try to put my thoughts in order here.

The talk centers on the word “natural.” Dawkins focuses on the “natural” of “natural selection,” the blind, targetless process which tends to emphasize short-sighted selfishness in its living products. Even those animals which behave altruistically can most often be seen to be working for the maximum propagation of their own genes, whether by limiting their selfless behavior to close relatives, or by erecting a system of reciprocal altruism whereby a favor is done in the expectation of future requittal.

Dawkins makes the further point that humans are the only creatures on Earth capable of breaking this “natural” tendency toward small-minded selfishness. We have brains that allow us to communicate complex abstract concepts to each other, concepts like (for example) justice, compassion, democracy, and lolcatz motivational posters. Our brains also give us the capability of planning far ahead. These capabilities make it possible to ignore the selfish instincts of our Darwinian natures, and work together selflessly for a shared future.

This is where I began to feel uneasy, for while humans undisputably have the capability of coming together selflessly for the betterment of all, we just as undisputably lack the inclination. We will always be able to count on humans to do the best they know how, but also to be selfish, stupid, hateful, stubborn, and a whole host of other, far worse things, all owing to what we are. We are the products of selection, programmed to behave altruistically toward members of our ingroup and hostile toward members of outgroups. We may be able to ignore these tendencies and behave selflessly, but whenever we do we will be vulnerable to exploitation by those who are interested only in selfish gains. The idea seems to fail just as group selection does: through the tragedy of the commons.

I realized as I continued to listen, however, that there is a way we humans can use our complex brains to erect a future that minimizes the harmful effects of our Darwinian selfishness. It involves not rebelling against that selfishness, but embracing it. We are what we are, and we cannot expect people at large to will themselves to be something we are not. What we can do is create a society that works, in spite of people being selfish. Such a society would not rely on people behaving better than anyone ever has. It would acknowledge human shortcomings, and minimize the harm wrought by them.

This is where I plug Daniel Quinn’s books. He points out that the society I describe above already exists, and has existed since humanity first arose. Indigenous tribal peoples are every bit as selfish as us “civilized” humans, and yet, despite being around for tens of thousands of years, have not wrought the kind of worldwide destruction that we accomplished within a few millennia. They have well-worn methods of dealing with human shortcomings, and live happily and contentedly wherever they are allowed to do so undisturbed. I submit that part of learning to live sustainably must be to learn to work around human selfishness, just as our ancestors and our extant tribal cousins still manage to this day.

In conclusion, I have to suggest that the answer to the title question is “No,” or at least “Probably not.” But that should not be a cause for alarm. We are subject to our genes, but we are perfectly capable of living such that the selfishness borne out of them does not destroy us all, just as deer and squid and pine trees are able to. Evidence of that can be found wherever indigenous peoples live as they always have, back through the thousands of generations to the first animals we might be tempted to call humans.

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2 Responses to “Can we rebel against our genes?”

  1. timprosser Says:

    I don’t think we have to rebel against our genes, as our thinking and knowledge are growing and will change the nature of our selfish behaviors. For example, I learned as a child to take selfish pleasure in the pleasure and well being of others – a sort of selfishness that is a positive factor for a larger group than just me. This might be seen as a “tit-for-tat” sort of altruism, but I think that oversimplifies and undersells it.

    I do think that a long view of the future and a motivation for altruistic behavior, based in the understanding of the interdependency of life on the planet, can “evolve” and become ingrained in our thinking. A new paradigm will (hopefully) emerge that permits us to achieve a sustainable world situation in the next century or two without too many cataclysms.

    Thanks for the interesting and informative entry.
    – Tim
    http://www.timprosserfuturing.wordpress.com

  2. soulbiscuit Says:

    I do think that a long view of the future and a motivation for altruistic behavior, based in the understanding of the interdependency of life on the planet, can “evolve” and become ingrained in our thinking. A new paradigm will (hopefully) emerge that permits us to achieve a sustainable world situation in the next century or two without too many cataclysms.

    I think you’re right. At least, if there’s any hope of our surviving the next few centuries, such a new paradigm must emerge. I suppose the difficulty is in getting it to emerge sooner rather than later.

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