The Other I

November 22, 2010

An unselfish gene?

Have you ever wondered why Darwin assumed that genes are selfish?  that is, that the pursuit for survival is based on a notion of survival based entirely on the individual involved?

Darwin himself wrestled with the problem created for this position by inter-species altruism.  The classic, but by no means singular example, are worker bees who are sterile but seem to work all their lives solely for the survival of the larger bee community.  Modern evolutionary theorists reason that altruism is a means of ensuring the survival of ones own genes carried by ones closest relatives.  A second-best choice, no doubt, to passing on ones own genes, but it does leave the basic mechanism of evolution in tact.

But I’ve begun to wonder if Darwin was influenced by his Christian beliefs.  Darwin himself took a lot of schtick, not least from his deeply religious wife, when he finally published his work.  But I know from personal experience that one can hold on to ideas that arise out of one’s earliest socialization even when I have thought I’ve abandoned the entire system.

This phenomenon, of course, if not unique to me.  Science itself is shaped by its determination to replace supernatural explanations of natural events with empirical, observable, and testable causes.  But the influence of that rejection of the supernatural has not altogether disappeared.  Many of the mistakes we scientists have made reflect a fear of letting the supernatural in by the back door.

Psychologists, for instance, in order to make eliminate concept of the “soul” tried to develop theories of human behavior in which the mind was completely absent.  Feelings and thoughts were at best epi-phenomenon, shadows of the real reality that could be seen and measured and subject to the laws of physics.  Not all of psychology is completely free of this assumption even today.

What has got me thinking in particular about this selfish gene is the concept of sin.  At the core of Christianity is the belief that mankind is basically sinful, that we need to be redeemed, and that was why Jesus died on the cross.  But it is possible to give up any belief in God at all and still cling to this assumption that we are basically sinful?

Are we hiding from ourselves that we still cling to this belief by using the world “selfish” instead of “sinful”?  Do we think selfish is somehow more secular, less spiritually contaminated, less influenced by this idea which is as old as far back as we can see into our own history?  Even before Christianity, we tried to placate the gods, sacrificed our virgins, danced our rain dances, apparently reasoning that we had done something terribly wrong and that we were the reason things were so badly askew.

In the light of this radical idea, I’m wondering whether the survival instinct is primarily creative rather than primarily selfish.

The problem with answering this question, it seems to me, is that there is so much evidence to support either perspective.  The media, of course, are hardly an unbiased source of data.  Stories that make news are inevitably the ones about disasters and crime, about impending doom, greed and ignorance.  Feel-good stories are add-ons.

How much unselfishness, how much creative impulse, how much caring and concern actually exist in our world?  It may be overwhelming.  Even the awful apparent evilness of a Hitler or Stalin might be interpreted as failed attempts to create a utopia rather than totally self-absorbed obsession with preserving their personal genetic legacy.

This idea is not entirely original to me.  I got the kernel of the thought from Tony Equale’s book The Mystery of Matter, soon to be available on Amazon.  Tony suggests that there is more reason to think genes are unselfish than selfish.  I take responsibility, however, for the elaboration of this idea here.   Equale may totally disagree.

I’m not initially inclined to trust ideas that are too optimistic.  But the more I think about it, the less outlandish the possibility that genes are more creative than selfish seems it might be.


  1. On apparent selflessness in ants and bees: I think the most favoured explanation is to do with haplo-diploidy – which I won’t attempt to summarise!

    Plus I think the ‘selfishness’ of genes is more mathematical/algorithmic than ethical. And their creativity is more mechanical than artistic…

    Thanks, Chris.


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — November 24, 2010 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

    • Chris – Thank you for the haplodiploid reference. It taught me something I didn’t know before. I can understand, though, why you thought it best not to summarize – especially in the colloquial.

      I’m not sure I would use the word “mechanical” to describe any vital function. But I do take your point. The greatest virtue of using the word “creative” in the context of gene behaviour is that it by-passes an association with selfishness, but it does lack anything but the vaguest definition. To put it another way, I really don’t know what I’m talking about, except that I don’t like the word “selfish” as it is used in relation to genetic transmission either.

      Having said that, I was rather hoping for your more informed thoughts on the subject when I made the post. So doubly thank you.


      Comment by theotheri — November 24, 2010 @ 10:28 pm | Reply

  2. […] an earlier post, I wondered if genes could legitimately be called “selfish” in their drive for […]


    Pingback by What makes numbers selfish? « The Other I — November 30, 2010 @ 4:39 pm | Reply

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