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.

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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.

Bad morality

The genetic determinists’ view of humanity leads to bad morality. The phrase “selfish gene” becomes justification for selfishness: It is our biological heritage to think only of ourselves, and aggression is validated and our worst impulses reinforced.


Yet the main task of culture — aside from passing on information for making a livelihood — is to create a social environment within which people can get along with each other and share resources, which means that they curb their so-called animal impulses. Biological determinists, however, talk about sex but not about love, about maternal sacrifice but not maternal care, about progeny but not about babies.

The Selfish Gene

is popular because it plays to our prurient interests and materialism. It says nothing about our dependence upon social life and our need for human contact.

Beyond the selfish gene

In Bridge to Humanity, I offer an alternative scenario for how we became human, one that shows how biological traits led us into being the special animals we are. I examine research on hormones, neurology and infant care, as well as all branches of anthropology. I see culture as a product of two converging phenomena: the need for affection, and the evolution of the brain that enables us to have grammatical language.

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Walter Goldschmidt
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