Selfish Genes and Humans
Are we selfish because our genes are selfish?
Some people seem to believe that no matter how we look at it, we are irredeemably selfish. Often, one of two reasons is given for this.
- Biological: We’re the result of our selfish genes, so selfishness is embedded in our very nature.
- Psychological: Behaving virtuously makes us feel good, so where’s the virtue?
Congenitally selfish — The biological argument
This perspective is usually the result of a common misunderstanding of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. The book explains how genes can be seen as selfish entities because their sole goal is to perpetuate themselves (this is metaphorical language; no one is suggesting that genes have agency). Thus the more successful gene variants spread in the gene pool at the expense of the less successful ones.
What’s crucial to understand, though, is that selfish genes can give rise to unselfish organisms. Humans can be selfish, of course, and naturally so, but they can be just as naturally cooperative and genuinely interested in the welfare of others. Cooperation and prosocial behavior are part of our nature, and there’s a good evolutionary reason for it: such a predisposition helps to perpetuate the genes that promote it.
Remarkably, we can even be altruistic, and not merely by disinterestedly helping others (a common definition of altruism), but per the technical definition of the term in biology, which is the following: a behavior that reduces the fitness of the organism performing it, while boosting the fitness of others. That is, a behavior that has a cost without a directly evident payoff. At the genetic level, such apparently puzzling behavior can still be explained by the selfish interests of the genes involved. The main examples of altruism involve what’s called kin selection and inclusive fitness, and reciprocal altruism.
The former is simply our evolved favoritism toward close relatives, in whom our genes are likely to be present. Thus any gene that predisposes us to help a close relative is likely to be helping an exact copy of itself, the result being that it will spread by replacing any versions of it that do not cause such a predisposition (and also any variants that induce it at too high a cost to the helping person).
And reciprocal altruism is helping others with the tacit expectation of being later helped in return (so it’s not technically true altruism in the long run). Such reciprocity need not be among relatives, it only requires that the individuals involved be likely to interact more than once.
Again the main point is that selfish genes can give rise to unselfish organisms; the examples provided just illustrate the mechanism.
Some may still insist that the love a mother feels for her children, say, is selfish because it’s all just about spreading her genes. That’s an absurd objection: a loving mother doesn’t know anything about inclusive fitness (and if she does, she doesn’t care about it) and feels nothing but true love for her children.
Intrinsic self-reward — The psychological argument
Some view the motives of what’s normally considered the manifestation of unselfish behavior as ultimately selfish because one is, consciously or not, expecting something in return: such behavior makes us feel good and thus carries with it its own reward. I don’t think that objection is justified. If being generous gives us a great sense of fulfillment and satisfaction, even a degree of self-congratulatory gratification, we’re not any less generous for it — even if motivated by those sentiments. In fact, if we behaved generously despite not feeling a natural inclination to do so we wouldn’t be really generous, as in that case something else would be motivating us, e.g., social pressure, a sense of duty, or a reasoned analysis of what’s good for society. It’s not that those motives are necessarily inferior, but since they are more related to “cold” calculations to obtain some goal we value, they are clearly dissimilar in kind to what we’d call a true generosity of spirit, to what we’d associate with a spontaneous generous disposition or a selfless nature.
Expanding the circle
We’ve seen that if we cooperate and help each other, and generally have natural prosocial tendencies, then it’s valid to say — whatever the underlying reasons — that we’re not naturally selfish. Our feeling good when we engage in that behavior does not weaken but strengthens this assessment.
Having said all that, there’s no doubt that we can also be utterly self-interested and selfish. However, that’s not what defines human nature. Without a high degree of prosociality, we simply couldn’t be a social species. In theory, we could be cooperative deliberately and consciously purely out of self-interest (or purely from instinct, as must be the case in ants, bees, and termites), but in species such as ours, evolution sees to it that any behavior that increases our fitness (e.g., cooperation) is reinforced by a feeling of contentment when practiced, thus we can be genuinely unselfish.
Something that muddles all this, of course, is that we tend to be very cooperative and helpful toward those we perceive to be part of our “tribe”, and indifferent, if not outright hostile, to outsiders. The challenge then, as philosopher Peter Singer and others have noted, is to try to expand our moral circle, to make it so that we “trick” our psychology into seeing more and more people as if they really were, to borrow from Dickens, “fellow passengers to the grave and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys”, until perhaps we succeed in our circle encompassing all of humanity (ideally including future generations), and even other animals. Not at all an easy task, but worth trying. Maybe worldwide prosperity, hyper-connectivity without borders, or some common threat or goal will infuse this spirit in humankind.
That may look like a hopelessly naive dream, but by recognizing that highly prosocial behavior is already part of our nature, we can at least see that we have the potential to achieve it. It’s just a matter of channeling our better selves.