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.
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.
The first phenomenon is affect hunger, our need for expressions of affection. Such expressions activate oxytocins, a class of hormones that entered our evolutionary stream to influence nesting behavior and lactation. Oxytocins evolved over 100 million years to reward diverse kinds of social behavior, including the pleasure of sex. A recent study shows that infant humans must receive affection during the first two years of life for them to produce these vital social hormones.
We have known for half a century that infants deprived of affection do not mature properly and that early stroking and other affective treatment is necessary for development of the mammalian neural system. Harry Harlow’s studies of wire-mother-raised macaques demonstrated the destructive effects of deprivation of care, and other research confirms that puppies, kittens and monkeys require tactile stimulation to develop properly.
This is a genetic need, as basic to survival as food. Freud’s “pleasure principle” has a physiological basis. Human infants arrive armed with inherent abilities to induce needed affection from mothers and other caretakers: imitation, tracking, responding with cooing, and within a few weeks, smiling. W.C. Fields notwithstanding, who among us is not captivated by such infantile wiles? Adults, too, have inherent positive responses. This ancient and universal interaction is not just the work of a couple of altruistic genes, but a complex array of inherited behavior associated with body chemicals that make us feel good.
While oxytocins emerged near the beginning of mammalian existence, grammatical language involves specialized evolution of the human brain. To house this brain, the cranium grew large, but the teeth and jaws became less formidable so as to equip the head with more thinking power and less fighting power. It was favoring brain over brawn during the five million years or so that separates us from our nearest primate relative that of all other living things. It lets us discuss what happened at other times and places, as well as among other people, not just between speaker and listener.
This disengagement made narratives possible. It is the shared understandings transmitted in stories that preserve culture — and cultures always have directives for behavior. Every human infant exits the womb with the potential both to produce and to induce oxytocins, and as it interacts with its mother and others it gradually enters a cultural universe. Approved behavior is rewarded as language is learned. The hunger for affection leads individuals into giving of themselves in the interest of community.
Swarms of gnats, schools of fish, flocks of birds and herds of elephants all testify that the evolutionary process finds community life beneficial for species survival. Bees, ants and termites are the most successful insects, and we are the most successful large mammals. We are social animals, yet each individual is involved with reproducing and preserving his own individuality. This means that there must be a means of sharing understanding and a system of rewards to induce the continued collaboration of independent beings. We call these rewards love.