RHYMES&REASONS

Observations, Thoughts and Reflections on 21st Century Life

Tag: Instinct

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.

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Why I look forward to living in a tolerant free society

Tolerant.

A word which has become so commonplace in western society that if the Oxford English Dictionary were listed in order of ubiquity it would appear near the beginning.  It is viewed as something good, worthy, virtuous even – the hallmark of a progressive society.  There is an air of self-congratulation about it because we have managed to suppress something we instinctively feel, in order to promote an outer acceptance.  Politicians and other leaders announce that we live in a tolerant society as if we have arrived at some kind of cultural ideal.

But is it really this simple? To feel tolerant of something you first have to perceive it as different from you in some shape or form, most often the opinion or behaviour of another individual or group.  The term has become synonymous with accepting people from other countries and cultures into the place in which we live and work.  But the very act of tolerating keeps us separate from those we wish to integrate with.  If you feel the need to tolerate, then you are still experiencing a difference from yourself which you feel some discomfort about.  It suggests an element of effort, a ‘putting up with’ for the benefit of the greater good.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter if it enables people to live together in a friendly and cordial manner.  However, the wall of tolerance often serves only to restrain the frustration at having to accept that which our instincts tell us to be wary of.  Under pressure from external stress such as unemployment or lack of resources, these repressed feelings break forth in the form of blame or anger directed at those we previously accepted.  From early humans to modern man instinct has provided a warning to be cautious of strangers and tolerance is merely a sticking plaster covering this innate response and does little to negate it completely.

Genetic Ancestry Tree

Genetic Ancestry Tree

But overcome it we can, as living alongside those from other parts of the globe becomes the norm and over time differences will cease to both us, there will be no tolerance required, no pre-judgement or labelling as to who is friend and who is foe. Historically migration took centuries, the mixing of cultures happened slowly with integration following initial resistance.  My own DNA can be traced back centuries to the North Caucasus region on my maternal side and Germanic roots on my father’s.  At the time of testing in 2009 the closest match on record to my genetic profile was that of a Turkish individual and an Iranian.  It’s not so much that we will end up in one homogenous melting pot but rather than eyed with suspicion, our differences will be embraced.

Already the 21st century has seen a rapid increase in relocation but our instincts, slow to change their habitual response, have yet to catch up.  One day the word ‘tolerant’ maybe obsolete and dropped entirely from the Oxford English Dictionary  . . .  only then will we live in a truly free society.

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