Thursday, May 15, 2008

Selfish Genes and Altruism

Sometimes I just like to nitpick. David Brooks wrote a column in the New York Times exploring the ways science keeps explaining the way our brain works and the resulting conflict between those who are confident that all our experiences have a material basis and those who keep faith in the "something else", a soul, a ghost in the machine, a larger invisible unmeasurable presence that transcends material explanations.

Brooks writes:

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Brooks seems to imply that despite genes being selfish, people have altruistic tendencies. This is pet peeve of mine. The persistent misunderstanding that selfish genes lead to selfish behavior. I responded in a previous post about an article Nicolas Wade wrote about altruism and see no reason to change much:

The term “selfishness” in his article really reflects the metaphorical motives of genes and not the real motives of individuals. These are not necessarily the same motives. Both selfish and co-operative behaviors are contingent strategies which have evolved in certain circumstances such as living in highly social groups. Which one is employed depends upon an unconscious cost-benefit analysis of the greatest chance of reproductive success. The ultimate causation of both these behaviors is the gene's metaphorical selfish motive in getting the most copies of itself into the next generation. Thus ‘selfish genes’ (ultimate level) don't automatically produce selfish behavior (proximate level).

This clarification of the meaning of “Selfishness” is crucial since one of the biggest misapprehensions about evolution is that if genes have selfish motives then individuals will always behave selfishly with the obvious distasteful implications for human behavior. This need not be so since "selfishness" is the genes metaphorical motive which can lead to a wide range of behaviors ranging from selfishness to altruism in individuals.

More than 30 years since the publication of Richard Dawkins classic book The Selfish Gene, such misconceptions remain. If you were to glance through that book, you will find large sections devoted to explaining the evolution of altruism!

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