The Fallacy of the Selfish Gene

The 'selfish gene' notion plays to our prurient interests, but it fails to explain the biology behind love and altruism.

BY: Walter Goldschmidt

Forgive me, but I will not be joining those celebrating the 30th anniversary of [Richard Dawkins' book] The Selfish Gene, since I believe this book has promoted not just bad popular science but plain bad science.

The “selfish gene” is a catchy anthropomorphic metaphor for a basic evolutionary truth: The goal of every organism is to perpetuate its own DNA. Metaphors may be useful in providing “handles” for understanding complex processes, but they are loaded with booby traps. In the case of “the selfish gene,” the metaphor has morphed into a slogan and the slogan acts as an enemy of thought.

Dawkins’ premise is that the human capacity for sacrifice is the product of a gene for altruism that somehow sneaked past the “survival of the fittest” screen. He bases his premise on studies by W. D. Hamilton, who showed self-sacrificing behavior to be statistically possible, if the sacrifice was of value sufficient to enable close kin to survive. But Hamilton’s research was based on social insects, in which the reproductive role is limited to a few ants and bees in the hive or nest — these are the units of natural selection. Observations of a social organization in which the rank-and-file do not have sex and do not compete as mammals must do for mates, are hardly applicable to humans.

Scientists in the Human Genome Project have determined that no single gene determines a particular behavior. Instead, many genes are involved in determining behavior, and their effects are often infl uenced by environmental factors. Even disregarding Dawkins’ anthropomorphism in using the word “selfish,” to focus on a gene is spurious.

False evolutionary theory

The “selfish gene” idea promotes bad evolutionary theory because it fails to appreciate that what animals do to assure progeny survival is based on systems of reward, not on inducing sacrificial desires. Among mammals, the rewards come from euphoria-inducing hormones. They apparently began with lactation and nestbuilding, and among social mammals are involved with offspring making connection with their mothers.

Failure to recognize this reward system prevents Dawkins from appreciating the dynamics of social interactions, with the affiliations and rivalries that characterize all primate species. To see social life as a product of altruism is not to see it at all.

Dawkins does say the human situation differs from that of other animals due to culture. But when we turn the page to the last chapter of his book, what he considers culture is already there. No explanation of how it got here.

It reminds me of those serial movies of my youth, such as the Perils of Pauline; one episode ends with Pauline tied to the tracks and the train bearing down, and the next begins with her riding off to the next adventure. There’s nothing about how she escaped, and nothing about how we got culture.

Dawkins’ culture consists of a bundle of “memes,” learned traits that have emerged through natural selection, just like genes. That is not what culture is, nor how cultural evolution works. Cultures are the worlds of shared perceptions and feelings — the ever-changing, kaleidoscopic environments within which all humanity exists.

Continued on page 2: Curbing our so-called animal impulses »

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