Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Selfish Gene & Human Decision Making

Book Review

Richard Dawkins ‘The Selfish Gene’ (Folio Ed.; 2011)
Photo Credit:  © Perry J. Greenbaum, 2013

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Folio Ed., 2011; first published: 1975

The Selfish Gene is one of the most misunderstood scientific books in the modern canon of scientific books about human decision making; the problem might be the title itself, which Richard Dawkins admits in later editions could have be better stated as “The Immortal Gene.” It's too late now, however, since the book originally came out in 1975, and the title is fixed in peoples minds, particularly those who view the book in a negative way as a defence of biological determinism.

This is patently false; the book is not a moral take on humanity; its predominantly a scientific view on genes and genetics and how they view the need to survive, whether in the human body or other bodies, which Dawkins calls survival machines, in such species as animals, insects and plants. The book does enter the long-standing and often-tiring debate on the influences of nature over nurture.

Needless to say, its important to clarify once and for all that no serious and rational scientist would ever say that nurture has no place in human development and decision-making. The differences among scientists from the various fields that research human development is the degree to which each has greater influence. But human beings, by dint of having been imbued with free will, to whatever degree it is mastered or considered as essential, can control the outcome of their lives and the decisions they make.

Dawkins writes:
This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution, I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. My own feeling is that a society based simply on the gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But, unfortunately, as much as we deplore something, it does not stop it being true. … Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish .(3)
This is an important point. It’s one thing to say that we are under the influences of our genes; it’s quite another to say that we have no choices, moral and others, on how we ought to live our lives. Some choose to live in complete accordance with their gene’s selfish nature; others don’t. If our genes are selfish by nature or design, the awareness of it can go a long way to mitigate our selfish desires.

Awareness, or knowledge of self, is an important step in the process of becoming the human beings we desire to become. Dawkins brings everything down to the level of genes, the units of hereditary to explain to a large degree how we tick. This might explain why highly driven and determined individuals—like Wall Street players, CEOs, and many if not most politicians— are extremely selfish. Such persons have given free rein to their genes to act in accordance to how they are programmed. In such individuals, it would seem that environment (i.e., nurture) plays little role in their development as human beings. I wonder if there exists some research on the relationship between such individuals and their connection to humanity.

This is of course a topic in itself. Dawkins’ book, however, is eye-opening and a fount of knowledge; and whether you agree or not with its premises and conclusions, the book is worth reading.

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