RHYMES&REASONS

Observations, Thoughts and Reflections on 21st Century Life

Month: July, 2015

The Selfish Gene – has it become our Achilles Heel?

Human nature is hung in the balance, our behaviour driven by selfishness and our desire to co-operate to ensure the survival of the group” 

These are the words of E O Wilson during an interview on BBC Radio 4 The Life Scientific.  Professor at Harvard and joint author of a paper setting out the case for group selection he now challenges the ‘selfish gene’ theory he once endorsed.  Among his contemporaries he is something of a lone voice.  Since Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution we have believed in survival of the fittest and increasingly this now means of the wealthiest.  But do we hide behind this as an excuse for our self interest?

The interview reminded me of a recent conversation with a friend regarding the widening pay gap and we imagined a society where each job was valued -and remunerated – at the same level.  We concluded that this state of equilibrium would quickly dissipate as the desire to better ourselves and provide for our children’s future would override everything else.  We are conditioned to believe that it was this ‘get ahead of the game’ attitude which enabled our ancestors to survive.

However, there is another way to look at this.  The history of life shows that evolutionary transitions are from the singular to the plural.  For example – separate molecules into a gene, individual genes into a chromosome, individual cells into a muti-cellular organism and from multi-cellular organisms into a social group.  Our survival as a species has been built on collective strength, on co-operation not separation.  This puts natural selection at the level of the group rather than the level of the individual.  Social groups become communities; communities become nations which make up our world and it is this global group with which we must now engage.

Our challenge today is selfishness v generosity and we are struggling to get the balance right because as Wilson so eloquently puts it “humanity still has paleolithic emotions”.  There was an ancestral need to drive nature as hard as they could to survive but by continuing this pattern, far from serving our needs and ensuring our survival we are in imminent danger of achieving the opposite as pressure increases on our natural resources.  There is a powerful case to show that we have struck too hard a blow and we are threatening the world in which we live and on which we depend.

Polar Bears Endangered by Climate Change Drawing by Rebecca Pells

Polar Bears Endangered by Climate Change
Drawing by RebeccaPells

There is a growing tension between the individual and the needs of the wider community and despite our fondness for the selfish gene, evolution shows that in order to thrive the individual also needs the group.  This tension is unstable, we see it manifest in the growing dissatisfaction between the wealthy few and the rest of society; between self serving governments who renege on election promises and their electorate; between environmentalists and those who either deny or believe it’s not their problem. It is not a question of tipping the scales firmly one way or the other but of a middle way with movement back and forth – too much in favour of the individual and society would fragment; too far towards group social selection and we would become like ants or honey bees.

This mid-way is the creative core of humanity; it is the threshold where we meet our challenges, where we can have the honest discussion and where ultimately we will find our way forward.  It is where we can overcome age old instincts which no longer serve and have become a modern achilles heel, where we can choose altruism over selfishness and where we will rediscover in ourselves a more ancient and fundamental essence – that generosity of spirit over personal gain will ensure our children’s future.

Embracing Vulnerability – take the risk and do it anyway!

To be vulnerable is to experience our own humanity.  It is a place we reside, where we are tenderly cradled and touched by our very essence.  In an age of tweets, updates, blogs and other portals of instant digital exposure, we are encouraged and seduced into sharing details of our lives.  Our vulnerability stands at the threshold of our inner deep desire for acceptance and affirmation and the outer, shallows of exposure.

Creativity is the metamorphosis of our inner world to the outer.  Our vulnerability is on display along with our words, paintings, sculptures and photographs.  Ideas originate in the depths of our being,  inhabiting a private nurturing world before eventually the desire to transform the nebulous into something physical inspires action and the artwork is born.  Projected into the daylight,  we are not simply exposing our physical being but that delicate, unprotected and naked vulnerability which shies the limelight and seeks shadowy refuge at the merest hint of criticism or indifference.

I recently spent five days on a sculpture course at Stanton Group Studios.  It was my first experience as a life model and  what I thought would leave me vulnerable and exposed quickly began to feel entirely natural.  It is only in the crossing of the threshold from the comfort of familiarity into the unknown that we experience vulnerability. We can step back in fear or stride into a new horizon just waiting to be explored.  For me this experience was far less exposing than when I publish an article or enter a painting in an exhibition.  Modelling shares only the outer self whereas the others come from a place deep within, revealing something of the vast, private interior, offering up tender shoots easily crushed by rejection, ridicule, judgement and jealousy.  It is tempting to recoil but in so doing we also close the facilitating portal to appreciation, admiration, respect and regard.

To seek vulnerability is liberating; it faces the biggest fear of all – that if others knew what we inwardly harbour, what we are really like, they would avoid us.  And yet the most attractive and interesting people are not those who look amazing or produce the greatest work – they are the ones who are confident in spite of their imperfections.  They are the ones who are willing to face rather than fear vulnerability knowing through experience how freeing and empowering it can be.

Many of us resist risk and change be it of ourselves or in others.  An attempt to be invulnerable is a vain one; it is part of our intrinsic nature and encompasses courage and compassion.  The choice we have is not whether we are vulnerable but to live with it bravely and with courage step fully across the threshold.

 

 

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Rob Ackerley Sculptor   robackerley@me.com

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