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.
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.