The Other I

December 2, 2010

More wrestling with selfish genes

Raised as a Catholic, I was taught from an early age that human beings are damaged.  The doctrine of original sin is the explanation for the loss of the mythical Garden of Eden when everything was idyllic, without conflict, or injustice.  We are the reason everything went wrong.  Adam and Eve committed some grave sin, and were thrown out of Eden by an angry God who cursed all human offspring with the stain of sin from birth.

Put that way, it makes God sound like a vengeful vindictive unforgiving and unloving tyrant, and it makes no sense to me.  But this idea that we are cursed by an essential self-seeking sinfulness goes back much further than the Old Testament and survives in much of current scientific theory.

I think part of the reason the idea is so tenacious is that it carries the message that we are not helpless – that by being good we can influence what happens to us.  I think we would often prefer to feel responsible rather than helpless, even if the cost is admitting to inescapable guilt.

I abandoned the idea of original sin many decades ago.  But it is only now that I have begun to question the source of a similarity between original sin and Freud’s id, that self-seeking pleasure principle which Freud believed is the core of our energy.  Behaviorism’s insistence that what we do is determined by punishment and reward is, paradoxically, another version of the same thing.

It is in this context that I found myself objecting to Dawkins’ reference to our genes as “selfish.”  In his comments on my earlier post, Chris Lawrence equates Dawkins’ use of “selfish” to describe genes with the poetic description of the sea as “cruel” or the wind as “angry.”  This impresses me as quite reasonable, and I am willing to accept that Dawkins was speaking metaphorically.

But we still have the deeper question:  are human beings essentially selfish?  Until very recently, I have always assumed we are.

But I’m not so sure any more.  Darwin’s theory of evolution initially had difficulty in explaining altruistic behavior, especially altruistic behavior exhibited toward other species when their preservation was – genetically speaking – quite distant from the preservation of our own genes.

Initially, this altruism was often used as an attack on the adequacy of evolutionary theory, as evidence that human beings are far superior to other organisms who blindly sought their own advancement.  I was never convinced by this idea and still see it as fairly pathetic.

But I am looking now at the scientific evidence and wonder if the drive to survive is as intrinsically selfish as we have assumed.

I say I’m looking at the evidence but it is inconclusive.  We can’t possibly add up all the instances of behavior and compare the two columns of “selfish” and “unselfish” behavior – even assuming we could agree about which behavior goes in which column which we can’t.  From some points of view, even Hitler’s grizzly policy of genocide can be interpreted as a desire to create utopia that went horribly array.

Similarly, is it selfish that we pass on to the next generation only our own genes?  We have absolutely no choice.  I can’t pass on your genes or the genes of my dog or even of my own mother.  So ethically, the mechanics of genetic transmission can’t be called selfish.

The conscious human decision to have children might come from essentially self-serving motives  such as “someone will be there to care for me when I am old,”   “it’s too expensive to have children” or “I will receive a benefit payment from the state if I have children and won’t have to work” .  But there are also apparently unselfish reasons, sometimes extending to selflessly caring for children who aren’t even ones own.

I’m beginning to think that the genetics of survival has generated organisms which are intrinsically unselfish.  That goodness is not simply wrung out of us by fear or need or power or self-serving greed.  It’s in our very genes.  We like sharing, we like being part of a functioning community.  There are scientific studies showing that people find being kind, or helping someone, solving a problem, or delighting in the good fortune of others are highly pleasurable acts in themselves.  I don’t think we have to learn them.

Okay, perhaps there is a streak of unselfishness in the very striving to survive.  What about the cruelty, the blind indifference, the impulse that seems to be present in every living organism on the planet that seems to say: “If it’s a choice between you or me, I’m fighting for me”?

Yes, it’s there.  But is that what we really are, as opposed to being unselfish?  Are we not perhaps both?  Or was Buddha right when he argued that what we call evil or selfish is our incompleteness?

Are we actually evolving toward greater goodness?

I don’t know.  I know my contrarian self well enough to know that on this question I would find myself arguing which ever side is being attacked.  The evidence for either side of the case impresses me both as very strong and as unconvincing.

But that in itself represents quite a big change in my fundamental view.   As I said, I’ve always taken it as pretty much of a given that living organisms, and humans especially, are basically selfish.

Now I’m not so sure.


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