It is enigmatic to be celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the best-selling, The Selfish Gene since it is not just bad popular science but plain bad science. Though written by an Oxford University graduate and don, it is outmoded genetics, false evolutionary theory, poor social theory, vapid anthropology and, bad moral philosophy.
“The selfish gene” is a catchy anthropomorphic metaphor for a basic truth about evolution; namely that survival gives priority to genetic continuity over the welfare of whatever beings produced those genes. Metaphors are useful in explaining obscure processes but they are loaded with booby traps. Used as a title, as Dawkins has done, they turn into slogans – those enemies of thought.
(Full disclosure note: I share Dawkins’ publisher, Oxford University Press, for my book ”The Bridge to Humanity; How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene.” I return to it later.)
Originally published in Science and Theology news, June 2006
An article in the Human Genome Project (USDE) says that “no single gene determines a particular behavior” so even disregarding Dawkins’ anthropomorphism, the focus on the gene is misleading. The article goes on to say that many genes are involved in determining any element of behavior and their effects are often influenced by environmental factors.
It is also bad evolutionary theory because it fails to appreciate that the many things animals do to assure progeny survival is based on systems of reward, not on inducing sacrificial acts. These rewards are quite clear among mammals, where they are associated with lactation and nest-building.
The failure to recognize this reward system also keeps Dawkins from seeing the dynamics of social interactions; with affiliations and rivalries that characterize many primate species in addition to our own. To see social life as a product of altruism is not to see it at all.
Dawkins says the human situation is different because of culture. When we turn the page to the last chapter, there culture is. Like the serial films of my youth, The Perils of Pauline. An episode would end with the villain tying Pauline to the tracks with the train bearing down and the next begins with her riding off to a new adventure. Nothing about how she escaped and nothing about how we got culture. Dawkins’ culture is a bundle of “memes,” learned traits subject to natural selection, as with genes. That is not what culture is, nor how cultural evolution works. Cultures are the wonderful worlds of shared perceptions and feelings – the ever-changing, kaleidoscopic environments we all live in.
This monolithic, mechanistic view of humanity is bad morality. If even the genes are selfish, doesn’t that mean we are naturally selfish? It simply reads that way, whether Dawkins intended it or not. It says our biologic heritage is to think only of ourselves, giving biological validation for aggression and aggressive sexuality, reinforcing out worst impulses. And memes are seen as merely a continuation of the process in another medium. I do not doubt that we have these animal instincts, but the main task of culture, aside from supplying out physical needs, is to create the beliefs and institutions to override these bestial impulses. Dawkins shares the biological determinists’ proclivity to consistently play down human uniqueness; there is a lot talk about maternal sacrifice but not maternal care, about sex but not about love, about progeny but not about babies.
The great popularity of The Selfish Gene tells us more about our culture than about our genetic heritage; it plays to our prurient interests and our materialism and says nothing about our involvement in social life and need for human contact.
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In Bridge to Humanity I offer a more gracious scenario for the emergence of a humane species. For this, I examined research on hormones, neurology and infant care and all branches of anthropology. Fundamentally, culture is a product of the convergence of two phenomena, the oxytocin reward system and the evolution of grammar.
The reward system involves a complex of inherent traits that I call “affect hunger,” the inherent need for affection and the means of inducing it. Such expressions activate the oxytocins, hormones that entered into our evolutionary stream with mammals. They seem to have initially served nesting behavior and lactation but evolved to reward diverse kinds of social behavior, including the pleasures of sexual intercourse (they are called the “hormones of love”). A recent study shows that infants that don’t receive affection in their first two years can’t produce these 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 are necessary for the full development of the neural system. Harry Harlow’s studies wire-mother-raised macaques dramatically demonstrated the destructive effects of affect deprivation. Research has shown that puppies, kittens and monkeys deprived of tactile stimulation will not have fully developed neurons. This is a genetic need, as mandatory for survival as food. Freud’s “pleasure principle” is a physiological reality.
Human infants arrive armed with a host of inherent abilities designed to induce his mother to give him the affection he needs: imitation of facial expressions, tracking on her face, forming attachment to her and other caretakers, responding appropriately to cooing during affective exchanges and, of course, smiling. W.C. Fields notwithstanding, who among us is not captivated by that infantile expression, for as adults we too have inherent positive responses to these blandishments? We are not dealing with a couple of altruistic genes, but a complex of inherited behavior associated with the chemicals that give us a sense of euphoria.
While oxytocins go back the hundred million years of mammalian existence, grammatical language evolved in the expanded cranium that is the distinctive feature of hominid evolution over the past five million years. Grammar is unique to humans. Grammar differentiates human communication from that of all other living things. It lets us discuss what happen at another time and place and about what goes on between others than either the speaker or the listener. This disengagement of the discourse is needed to make narratives, and it is the shared understanding transmitted in such narratives that make culture possible. And cultures always include directives for behavior.
Every human infant ever born exits the womb armed with the ability to produce and induce oxytocins and engages in an interaction with his mother and others and thereby enters this cultural universe and is rewarded for approved behavior, so that in the course of time he not only learns the local language, but to do the things that may or may not be in the interest of his own genetic continuity. For the hunger for affect leads each individual to giving something of himself in the interest of maintaining the community that supports him.
The swarms of gnats, schools of fish, flocks of birds and herds of eland all testify that the evolutionary process finds community life beneficial for species survival. Certainly the bees, ants and termites are the most successful of insects and we are the most successful of large mammals. We are the only one of these highly social animals where every individual is involved with reproducing and preserves his individuality. This required a means of sharing understanding and a system of rewards that induce the continued collaboration of independent beings. We call these rewards love.